Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A simmering dispute over who has power over the state’s purse strings took a new twist Friday, with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office arguing legal precedent gives the governor sole authority to spend more than $1.7 billion in federal relief funds.
In a 46-page filing with the state Supreme Court, Lujan Grisham’s attorney also said the fact that the unallocated dollars from the federal American Rescue Plan Act are currently in a suspense account – not the state treasury – means the Legislature lacks the legal reach to earmark the money.
“In short, the ARPA funds are not subject to appropriation because they are not ‘in the treasury,’ ” the governor’s chief general counsel Holly Agajanian argued in her filing.
Spending authority for federal dollars has emerged as a political tug-of-war over the past 18 months, with some lawmakers arguing the state’s Constitution gives the Legislature the power to appropriate public funds – with the governor holding the ability to veto such appropriations.
Two state legislators, Senate GOP floor leader Greg Baca of Belen and Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, filed a petition with the Supreme Court last month seeking to bar Lujan Grisham from spending roughly $1.1 billion of the $1.7 billion that has not yet been spent.
The two lawmakers, both attorneys, described the dispute in their court challenge as a “constitutional emergency of generational importance.”
They also pointed out that a Republican-led attempt to call an extraordinary legislative session to address the issue this summer failed to get enough Democratic support to move forward.
The state’s highest court asked for responses from the governor and other involved parties before it decides whether to hear arguments in the case. The Supreme Court justices could also issue a ruling without holding formal arguments.
State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, a Democrat, sided with the legislators in a court filing this week, but the Governor’s Office said in its Friday filing that the treasurer omitted some information – including exactly where the federal dollars are being held – and misconstrued state law.
In addition, Lujan Grisham’s attorney said the separation of powers argument made by lawmakers can also be used to bolster the governor’s legal claim.
“It would be just as much of a violation of separation of powers to intrude on the governor’s executive managerial function to administer federal funds in the state’s custody,” Agajanian said.
The federal stimulus plan was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March and the governor announced 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 Lujan Grisham administration has also earmarked $10 million in financial incentives to entice New Mexicans to get the COVID-19 vaccine, $5 million to incentivize unemployed individuals to return to work, and $5 million to provide supplemental pay bonuses for chile field workers.
The bulk of the money remains unspent as the governor used her line-item veto authority in April to strike down the Legislature’s proposal to earmark some of the funds for a popular college scholarship program and highway repairs, among other uses.
Meanwhile, the Governor’s Office has confirmed that top officials in the Democratic governor’s administration have held meetings with legislative leaders to discuss a spending plan for the unallocated relief funds.
Details of such a plan have not, however, been released yet.