Lawmakers extended an olive branch to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday in their ongoing debate with the executive over the balance of state power during the COVID-19 era.
In a letter, New Mexico’s Legislative Council asked Lujan Grisham if she is open to working with lawmakers to come up with new policies and legislation related to emergency powers.
“We are presented with an opportunity to craft a sensible solution that will serve both the executive branch’s needs to respond to the pandemic and the legislature’s need to exercise its appropriation and oversight responsibilities,” House Speaker Brian Egolf and Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen wrote in the letter to the governor.
The letter came some two months after the committee, which includes Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, voted to ask outside attorneys to investigate whether Lujan Grisham should have asked for authorization from the Legislature for $30 million in COVID-19 emergency spending in March and April.
Later in July, lawmakers asked the governor to explain the legality of her spending, and she responded in a strongly worded letter that called the issue a “pedantic matter.”
At a Legislative Council meeting last month, attorneys contracted by legislators called the governor’s response “incorrect” and said she had spent funds with “no transparency.”
Republican lawmakers called for legal action against the governor over the matter, but their Democratic counterparts resisted those calls and said the issue should be resolved through legislation. That appeared to be the path the council continued to pursue in its letter Wednesday, although some concerns remained.
Legislators made it clear there is still “disagreement” in how the branches interpret state law, adding they remain worried they could lose some of their authority.
“The legislature is concerned that the interpretation described in your letter of August 4 may divest the legislature of its constitutional power of appropriation,” the letter stated.
Yet overall, the letter had a more conciliatory tone than prior exchanges, and it praised the governor for her “efforts in responding to the pandemic.”
Lawmakers said they asked legislative staff to contact their counterparts in the executive branch to work together “to propose any modifications to statutes, policies and procedures that they believe will improve responses and outcomes in the future.
“We are also directing Legislative Council Service staff to contact the policy staff in your administration to prepare a more complete list of policy areas in emergency response that need improvement and modernization,” the letter said.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham, said Wednesday the Governor’s Office is “always open to conversation with the Legislature.”
“But the plain fact remains that the governor has acted within her authority and those actions have saved lives,” she said when asked about the letter.
At issue is a state statute allowing appropriations of $750,000 “for each eligible and qualified applicant” when the governor declares an emergency.
Republicans have argued the governor broke that rule by authorizing appropriations above that amount, with some fiscally conservative Democrats expressing similar concerns.
The governor then said it would create an “absurd requirement” to read state law in such a way that called for dozens of executive orders for $750,000 each rather than issuing one order, for instance, for $20 million.
Legislators such as Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, have said the statute needs to be changed.
Lawmakers decided at the last council meeting that their contract attorneys would continue collecting data on the matter.