Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg has sided with two legislators – one Republican and one Democrat – in their legal dispute with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office over authority to spend more than $1.7 billion in federal relief funds.
The state Supreme Court has asked for formal responses before deciding whether to hear arguments in the case, which was filed last month by Senate GOP floor leader Greg Baca of Belen and Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat.
In a court filing this week, an attorney for Eichenberg urged the Supreme Court to rule on the case and said federal funds that are not targeted for a particular program can only be appropriated by the Legislature.
“The founders’ clear intention was that legislative action is required before public funds can be spent,” attorney Linda Helen Bennett wrote in a 20-page filing.
She also said Congress gave states the authority to determine how to best allocate funds authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law in March by President Joe Biden.
Eichenberg, a Democrat who is serving his second term as treasurer, is a former state senator who is barred from seeking reelection next year.
The treasurer, who is responsible for receiving and depositing the federal dollars, believes there should be an open debate over how to spend the money, with opportunity for public participation, his attorney said in the court filing.
Such a process “can and will only happen in a legislative process,” she said.
“The federal government cannot, by allocation of funds, endow a governor, even a well-intentioned governor acting in the aftermath of a public health emergency, with powers greater than those granted by the state Constitution,” Bennett said in her filing.
Spending authority for federal dollars has emerged as a political battlefield over the past 18 months.
The Governor’s Office has insisted legal precedent supports Lujan Grisham’s handling of the federal dollars, although some lawmakers have disputed that contention.
“Courts have previously made clear the Legislature may appropriate state, not federal, funds,” said Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett, who declined to comment further on the lawsuit but said the governor’s administration looks forward to providing support for ongoing “economic rejuvenation” around New Mexico.
Sackett has also said top officials in the Democratic governor’s administration have held meetings with legislative leaders to discuss a spending plan for the roughly $1.1 billion of the $1.7 billion that has not been spent.
However, details of such a plan have not been released.
The governor did announce in June that 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 spike 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 but instead asks the state’s highest court to bar the governor from spending the unallocated federal funds.
In a Wednesday interview, Candelaria said the treasurer’s court filing strengthens the legislators’ argument.
He also said other Democrats have expressed support for the effort privately but have been wary of giving their public backing for political reasons.
“It is troubling to me that any executive would claim to have such unilateral authority to make decisions about spending public funds behind closed doors,” Candelaria told the Journal.
The Governor’s Office is expected to file its formal response in the case this week.