Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – With arguments before the state Supreme Court looming next week, four prominent Senate Democrats have joined a roiling dispute over who controls the state’s purse strings when it comes to discretionary federal aid – the governor or the Legislature.
In a Wednesday court filing, the four lawmakers, all Senate committee chairmen, said New Mexico’s Constitution and previous court rulings make it clear Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a fellow Democrat, should not have sole authority to decide how to spend what’s left of $1.7 billion in federal relief funds.
“The Constitution vests the appropriation power in legislators from 112 districts across the state because it is essential to have a diversity of interests represented when the Legislature sets spending priorities,” the four legislators wrote in their filing. “This representation of diverse views would be lost if the appropriation power were vested in one person.”
The filing by the four lawmakers – Sens. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque, George Muñoz of Gallup and Gerald Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque – marks the latest twist in a political tug-of-war between the Governor’s Office and the Legislature.
Two other legislators – Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, and Senate GOP floor leader Greg Baca of Belen – filed a petition with the Supreme Court in September after Lujan Grisham used her line-item veto authority to ax legislative earmarks for more than $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars from a state budget bill. The vetoed earmarks included funding for a state unemployment fund, a popular college scholarship program and highway repairs.
However, the governor announced in June her administration would target more than $656 million of the federal money to replenish the unemployment fund, which was all but drained by a deluge of pandemic-related claims for jobless benefits.
The governor has also earmarked smaller amounts of the federal dollars for COVID-19 vaccine incentives and a temporary wage supplement for individuals working in New Mexico’s chile fields.
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
Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham’s office has insisted legal precedent supports the governor’s handling of the relief funds, which stem from the federal American Rescue Plan Act that was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.
“Courts have previously made clear the Legislature may appropriate state, not federal, funds,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Wednesday, adding the Governor’s Office has no further comment on the litigation, but looks forward to providing more support for “economic rejuvenation” statewide.
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.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case Nov. 17. The state’s highest court could then issue a same-day ruling or wait and release its decision at a later date.