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Tension mounts as NM awaits federal funds

A view of the state Capitol in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – The latest round of federal stimulus funding – $1.75 billion for New Mexico – hasn’t hit the state government’s bank account yet.

But partisan tension over how to handle the money is escalating.

House Republicans and Democrats this week exchanged letters over how the Legislature should respond to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s line-item vetoes of part of the state budget – a dispute that includes her rejection of legislative plans for allocating some of the federal money.

House Republicans are pushing the Legislative Council – a panel of top-ranking lawmakers – to convene an immediate meeting to debate how to respond to the budget vetoes.

And, if that doesn’t happen, GOP legislators say, the Legislature should call itself into an extraordinary session to override the vetoes.

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, and other top Republicans in the House made the request in a letter Monday to House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe and Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque, both Democrats.

Egolf on Tuesday responded to Townsend’s letter by saying it’s premature to call the Legislative Council together to weigh legal options. The next fiscal year doesn’t start until July, he said, and the stimulus funding hasn’t arrived yet.

There “is no need to rush into a partisan conflagration or legal action,” Egolf said in his letter.

Townsend and the House Republicans, in their letter, said a meeting is needed now, in part to ensure no federal stimulus funds are spent without legislative approval.

The questionable vetoes, they said, put “us on the cusp of a constitutional crisis that demands the Legislature take immediate action to preserve its appropriation and budget-setting authority.”

The dispute is rooted in Lujan Grisham’s partial veto of the state budget passed by legislators in March. She rejected language specifying how some of the federal stimulus money should be allocated. Lawmakers wanted to designate some of the federal money for a depleted unemployment insurance fund and for highway repairs, among other priorities.

But the governor said lawmakers were intruding on the authority of the executive branch to determine how to spend federal funds and that a final decision on where to apply the funds should wait until more information is available.

A spokeswoman for her office said last month that Lujan Grisham was open to collaborating with lawmakers on how best to spend the federal stimulus money.

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