Two state senators have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asking the New Mexico Supreme Court to bar her from spending federal pandemic aid without legislative approval.
“This case presents a constitutional emergency of generational importance,” Sens. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, and Greg Baca R-Belen, say in a complaint filed Friday.
The lawsuit alleges the governor already has violated the state constitution by appropriating $600 million of the $1.73 billion in American Recovery Plan Act funds received by the state without legislative approval and says the court must act to prevent further unauthorized spending of the remaining $1.08 billion. The $600 million was used to replenish the state’s Unemployment Trust Fund.
“The New Mexico Supreme Court has made clear the state Legislature may appropriate state, not federal, funds,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Sackett said in an email Monday in response to the suit. “We have no further comment on the petition.”
The money at stake comes from a $1.9 trillion federal economic stimulus bill passed in March to help the U.S. recover from the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lawsuit is the latest salvo in what has been an ongoing struggle between lawmakers and the governor over which branch of state government has the authority to allocate federal funds.
The Legislature passed a bill during its regular session earlier this year calling for the money to be deposited in an “Appropriation Contingency Fund” and earmarking about $660.5 million for various purposes, including the stabilization of unemployment funds, the lawsuit says.
But Lujan Grisham vetoed that portion of the bill. She wrote in her veto message “the Legislature lacks the authority to direct the executive’s administration of federal funds.”
The senators say in their lawsuit the state constitution requires the executive branch to obtain legislative approval to spend any money held in the state’s treasury, with the exception of making payments on public debt.
Republican lawmakers led an unsuccessful push to convene an extraordinary session on the issue earlier this year.
After the effort failed, they sent a letter asking Attorney General Hector Balderas for a legal opinion regarding the authority to “expend” the relief funds.
“The request for our opinion is under active review, and with the filing of a petition with the Supreme Court on the same legal question, we will analyze the case to determine the appropriate next steps,” Balderas’ spokesman, Matt Baca, wrote in an email Monday.
Candelaria said in a news release Monday, “We have filed this petition to halt the Governor’s unconstitutional efforts to usurp the Legislature’s appropriations power by claiming that she, and she alone, has the power to decide how billions of dollars in federal grant funds are spent. In our country, no one is above the law and no one person should ever have the power to decide, unilaterally, how much people are taxed or how public money is spent.”
The lawsuit asks the state Supreme Court to issue a stay prohibiting the governor, State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg and any other state officials from spending any of the federal recovery money while the petition is pending and to issue a writ prohibiting funds from being spent without legislative approval going forward.