No Wagyu beef.
No tuna steaks.
No bottles of vodka and tequila.
And, with an election on the horizon, no more easy ammunition for Republicans who are trying to dig up dirt and win back the Governor’s Office next year.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who faced stinging criticism from the public, scrutiny from the news media and political attacks from the GOP over purchases made through her taxpayer-funded expense account, has dramatically scaled back her discretionary fund spending since the controversy blew up in February.
The decision was deliberate.
“We don’t need an unnecessary headache and to give Republicans any more bull---- to talk about that they can exaggerate and run ads about and get people on Facebook screaming and making death threats and everything,” said Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s chief spokesman.
The Republican Governors Association, which has targeted Lujan Grisham as she seeks a second four-year term in 2022, said the governor decided to stop misspending taxpayer money only after she got caught red-handed.
“Forget doing the right things for the right reasons, Gov. Lujan Grisham will only halt her misdeeds if voters take notice,” spokesman Will Reinert said. “New Mexicans deserve a governor who doesn’t direct expletive-filled rants ridiculing the legitimate outrage citizens have about the misuse of taxpayer money to fund her bougie lifestyle.”
Kendall Witmer, a spokeswoman for the governor’s reelection campaign, did not return messages seeking comment.
While invoices over the last few months turned up a couple of receipts that political operatives could exploit, including a dozen bottles of cheap wine and two full slabs of ribs from Whole Hog Café, Stelnicki said spending has been anything but lavish.
“The last fiscal year spending from the [$96,000] contingency fund represents 0.00002 percent of the state budget,” Stelnicki wrote in a text message. “It’s for readers to decide whether the scrutiny of this 0.00002 percent of the state budget is proportionate.”
Not only does the fund represent a fraction of a fraction of the state budget, but an estimated $75,961 went unspent over the last fiscal year, which ended Wednesday, and will revert back to the general fund, Stelnicki said.
“The overwhelming majority of the budgeted money of this fund was untouched [and will revert] to the general fund of the taxpayers of New Mexico,” he said.
But the spending, which included thousands of dollars on groceries for the governor’s mansion, including liquor and beer, could have political consequences for Lujan Grisham.
A complaint from a constituent sparked an “examination” of the governor’s spending by State Auditor Brian Colón’s office. Colón said Thursday the examination has almost wrapped up. He declined to discuss its findings, saying he can’t comment on an ongoing examination. But he said he’s working on a final draft of the report that could be released as early as Thursday.
“I am so close I can taste it,” he said.
The contingency fund has sparked controversy in the past, which led to it being subject to more transparency, due in large part to former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who tapped into the fund to pay for what turned out to be a raucous holiday party at the Eldorado Hotel & Spa that involved police. Some say the party, which included reports of bottles being thrown from a balcony, ended Martinez’s hopes for national office.
In February, Lujan Grisham expressed regrets over the use of the funds. She said she had “dropped the ball” and could have found a way to use part of the contingency fund to pay for food for needy children or those hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.
“When people are struggling, should it be fair that residents [of the governor’s mansion] literally have a locked-up grocery store closet … that has libations and catering stuff and food?” the governor said at the time.
“I don’t want New Mexicans to feel like I don’t take seriously their hardship,” she said.
In March, the month after the governor’s spending generated headlines across New Mexico and beyond, expenditures dropped to $50.66.
“The Republican pushback was so aggressive and their messaging about it so, I would say, out of step with the context of this amount of money and what it is allowed to be used for, we said, ‘Spending should be significantly reduced,’ ” Stelnicki said.
Receipts over the past few months, obtained under a public records request, included additional food purchases, including Starbucks coffee and Perrier mineral water. Among the priciest items were $50.78 for the two slabs of ribs and $134.56 for a dozen bottles of New Mexico wine.
The ribs and wine were purchased for a series of dinners “with former and current office holders … to celebrate the state’s progress towards ending the pandemic and discuss other official business with respect to the state’s recovery,” Stelnicki said, adding it was an expense “directly connected with obligations of the elected office of governor.”
The bottles of wine weren’t “fancy,” he said.
“These were $11 bottles of wine,” he said. “If you’re drinking a cheaper wine, you’re probably in college.”
The public records request also turned up several receipts for chicken feed. Stelnicki said there are chickens “on the public side” of the governor’s mansion.
Asked why there are chickens at the mansion, Stelnicki replied, “This is New Mexico.”