Yes, Virginia, there are three branches of state government.
The state Supreme Court affirmed that bedrock constitutional principle last week in one of its most consequential rulings in decades.
Faced with what plaintiffs called a “constitutional emergency of generational importance,” the state’s high court shot down Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s assertion that she alone can allocate federal stimulus money.
The optics of a Journal photo taken during the Nov. 17 hearing spoke volumes. Seated at one table were state Sens. Jacob Candelaria, Joseph Cervantes and Daniel Ivey-Soto, all Democrats. Candelaria represented a bipartisan coalition of state senators seeking “to rebalance the scales of power and protect the Legislature’s important yet fragile power over the purse strings of state government.”
Seated at the other table were the Democratic governor’s three lawyers, none of whom has been elected or empowered by the people. The governor’s chief counsel, Holly Agajanian, argued unsuccessfully that previous legal precedent supported Lujan Grisham’s handling of federal relief funds.
During oral arguments, it became clear the justices weren’t buying it. Chief Justice Michael Vigil asked the governor’s attorney: “Didn’t you just rewrite the Constitution?” Yes, she had. Justice David Thomson was even more blunt, saying he learned in second grade that lawmakers control the purse strings.
Back in April, Lujan Grisham used her line-item veto authority to strike legislative earmarks for more than $1 billion of federal stimulus dollars from the state budget bill. Lawmakers had earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act to fix highways, expand broadband access and replenish the state’s unemployment insurance program.
Two state lawmakers — Candelaria and Republican Sen. Greg Baca — filed a petition with the state Supreme Court challenging Lujan Grisham’s authority to unilaterally decide how to spend the $1.7 billion of ARP funds the state was allocated. Even Democratic state Treasurer Tim Eichenberg sided with Candelaria and Baca.
After hearing oral arguments, it only took about an hour of deliberations for the Supreme Court to decide the case. The court ruled the governor cannot spend the remainder of the $1.7 billion without legislative approval.
It was a rare rebuke of the governor by the Supreme Court, which has upheld all of her pandemic-related public health orders. The Supreme Court also ruled in her favor last week when it correctly halted citizen-led grand juries intended to investigate the governor’s handling of the pandemic.
Baca, the Senate Republican floor leader, called the ruling about spending federal funding “monumental.” “For the past 18 months, Gov. Lujan Grisham has exercised virtually unchecked power in New Mexico. Thankfully, some of that power was finally reined in,” he wrote in an op-ed. Candelaria told reporters “the day is a huge victory for the Constitution.”
The governor has already allocated $600 million of the $1.7 billion to shore up the state’s unemployment fund. Lawmakers weren’t trying to roll that back. They simply want to appropriate the state’s remaining $1.1 billion of ARP funds.
The governor retains the authority to fully or partially veto any legislative spending plan. That’s an awesome power in itself. But the court made it clear that’s the extent of the governor’s appropriation powers.
The governor should take the Supreme Court’s ruling to heart and learn from her self-inflicted overreach: It’s better to work with state lawmakers than to circumvent them. The money belongs to New Mexicans, and it should be appropriated by their elected representatives after extensive public input.
There is a good reason we have 112 legislators: to provide a check and balance to the executive branch. And there’s a good reason we have a Supreme Court: to provide a check and balance to the executive and legislative branches and settle such disputes. This case was a rare instance of Democratic and Republican lawmakers working together to assert their powers of the purse. And the ultimate winner was democracy itself.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.