Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called on New Mexico legislators Thursday to allocate federal stimulus funding during a special session this month – a move to accelerate debate over a historic infusion of $1.1 billion.
But a legal clash over the administration’s handling of the funds is also poised to intensify.
Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque accused the governor Thursday of continuing to spend the stimulus funding over the past few weeks in violation of a court order, and he filed a motion asking the state Supreme Court to step in.
The Lujan Grisham administration, in turn, said the money at issue was for services rendered before the order and the state was obligated to pay.
In any case, the governor’s announcement Thursday could push New Mexico lawmakers closer to a decision on how to spend an injection of federal money in a state that has struggled for decades with poverty.
Lawmakers were already preparing to meet Monday to begin a special session dedicated to redistricting. The governor’s move adds federal stimulus funds to the agenda.
She didn’t outline any specific priorities Thursday for how to appropriate the unspent funding. But a spokeswoman said the expansion of broadband internet service and addressing other infrastructure needs are a key focus.
“I am sure that lawmakers will meet this moment and deliver this massively important federal funding to New Mexicans in a strategic and meaningful way,” Lujan Grisham said in a written statement.
Legislators have, however, said they intended to focus on redistricting this month and leave budgetary matters to the 30-day session set to begin Jan. 18.
Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Thursday that it makes no sense to rush into a decision on the money without thorough planning.
“You’re only going to have this opportunity once in a lifetime to really make change in New Mexico,” he said in an interview.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said earlier this week that waiting made sense.
It would allow lawmakers, she said, to factor in the stimulus funding as they develop a broader budget package.
“We need to have accurate revenue projections in January and do it right,” she said Wednesday, a day before the governor’s announcement.
Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the 30-day session is already loaded with a “weighty agenda,” including how to spend record amounts of state revenue.
It’s imperative, Sackett said, for lawmakers to act quickly on the federal funds.
“Broadband and infrastructure have been, and remain, key focuses for the governor and, while we are excitedly anticipating the incoming federal infrastructure funding, there is no shortage of need in our state,” she said.
“Those are certainly not the only areas deserving of attention, and the governor fully expects the Legislature to deliver the funding to most meaningfully support and benefit New Mexico families.”
The federal funds have been a source of tension for months between the Democratic governor and the Legislature, where Democrats hold large majorities.
Until a legal challenge, Lujan Grisham had contended she had authority to allocate the $1.7 billion in federal funds pouring into New Mexico in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She used some of the money to provide cash incentives for getting vaccinated, extra pay to workers in chile fields and financial help for an unemployment insurance fund.
But a bipartisan group of state senators – including Candelaria – won a Supreme Court ruling last month barring the governor from spending the remaining money without legislative approval. About $1.1 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act is at stake.
Tension over who had authority to allocate the federal funding began to build earlier this year when Lujan Grisham used her line-item veto authority to remove language in the state budget bill for how to handle some of the federal stimulus money.
The vetoed earmarks had called for funding to go to the state unemployment fund, a popular college scholarship program and highway repairs. Whether lawmakers will stick with those priorities or apply the money elsewhere isn’t clear.
“It’s just challenging to really tackle a lot of systemic issues with what we know is one-time money,” said Candelaria, a member of the Senate Finance Committee.
Outside the Capitol, the court case is continuing.
Candelaria on Thursday filed a motion with the Supreme Court demanding an explanation for at least two transactions totaling over $280,000, both of which came after the court order requiring legislative approval before any more spending.
“Their hands got caught in the cookie jar,” Candelaria said.
His motion asks the court to direct the administration to explain why it shouldn’t be held in contempt of court for making the payments in violation of the order to seek legislative approval.
Even if some funds were obligated before the order, he said, the administration had the ability to ensure the stimulus funds weren’t used to make any payments.
Candelaria also asked the court to make the State Treasurer’s Office part of the approval process to prevent unauthorized spending.
Sackett, the governor’s press secretary, said the administration didn’t violate the order and has, in any case, redeposited the money.
“The money at issue was for services rendered and was obligated before the Supreme Court issued its stay,” Sackett said in a written statement.
The state Department of Finance and Administration “informed the state treasurer yesterday that it would immediately redeposit the funds, which it has done.”
Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce, who was defeated by Lujan Grisham in the 2018 governor’s race, said the legal dispute was another example of her “ignoring the other equal branches of government.”