Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Two state lawmakers – one Democrat and one Republican – have filed a petition with New Mexico’s Supreme Court challenging Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s authority to unilaterally decide how to spend what’s left of the state’s allotment of $1.7 billion in federal relief money.
The lawsuit announced Monday by Senate GOP floor leader Greg Baca of Belen and Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, asks the high court to bar the governor from spending roughly $1.1 billion in federal funds that has not yet been allocated.
The lawmakers described the situation as a “constitutional emergency of generational importance” in their 20-page petition and pointed out a Republican-led attempt to call an extraordinary legislative session to address the issue failed to get enough Democratic support to move forward.
“The court must now act to rebalance the scales of power and protect the Legislature’s important yet fragile power over the purse-strings of state government,” they wrote in their lawsuit.
However, a Lujan Grisham spokeswoman suggested legal precedent supports the governor’s handling of the federal dollars, which were received by the state under a COVID-19 pandemic relief plan signed by President Joe Biden in March.
“The New Mexico Supreme Court has made clear the state Legislature may appropriate state, not federal, funds,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett told the Journal.
She also said Lujan Grisham administration officials have held recent meetings with legislative leaders to discuss a spending plan for the remaining dollars, but did not immediately provide specifics on what such a plan might include.
Spending authority for federal dollars has emerged as a political tug-of-war over the last 18 months, though the Democratic-controlled Legislature has resisted Republican calls for a court challenge.
Some lawmakers have chafed at the Democratic governor’s contention the Supreme Court has, in past rulings, given the executive branch authority over spending federal funds.
Specifically, Baca said the executive branch can only spend federal funds unilaterally when they are specifically targeted at specific agencies or programs, and argued that’s not the case with the state’s allocation of federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars.
“That type of discretion is clearly reserved for the Legislature,” Baca said in an interview.
He also said there was bipartisan support for the effort, but cited a lack of “intestinal fortitude” among some top-ranking lawmakers to challenge the governor’s authority in court.
At least part of the spending dispute relates to Lujan Grisham’s decision in April to use her line-item veto authority to strike legislative earmarks for more than $1 billion of federal stimulus dollars from the state budget bill. The vetoed earmarks included funding for a state unemployment fund, a popular college scholarship program and highway repairs.
Subsequently, the governor announced in June her administration would target more than $656 million of the federal money to replenish the state unemployment fund, which was all but drained by a deluge of pandemic-related claims for jobless benefits.
The lawsuit filed by Baca and Candelaria, who are both attorneys, does not seek a reversion of those funds – or other federal dollars already allocated by the Lujan Grisham administration.
Candelaria, who has clashed with the governor and top Senate Democrats in recent weeks, said in a Monday statement he felt compelled to file the lawsuit to defend New Mexico’s Constitution.
“In our country, no one is above the law and no one person should ever have the power to decide, unilaterally, how much people are taxed or how public money is spent,” Candelaria said.
The Supreme Court had not ruled as of Monday whether it plans to take up the case. Before it decides whether to hear arguments, the Supreme Court could request a formal response to the lawsuit from the Governor’s Office.