NM High Court Says Legislature Has Authority Over COVID-19 Federal Funds

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The New Mexico Supreme Court, in a court ruling, ordered Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to stop using any unspent federal COVID-19 stimulus money without state legislature approval.

New Mexico Supreme Court Judge Michael Vigil, after a brief deliberation from the justices, read the decision.

“The court grants standing to the applicants on the basis of great public importance,” Vigil said. “First, the court determines that a writ is appropriate in this case, and the court will order that a writ of prohibition and mandamus, prohibiting the governor and treasurer of the state and all other officials of the State subject to their authority to transfer, encumber, commit or appropriate additional funds outside the State [American Rescue Plan Act] account in the state treasury in the absence of legislative appropriations.

The court ruling was the culmination of weeks of court records in a case filed by two state senators. Democratic State Senator Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque and Republican Senator Greg Baca de Belen jointly filed a petition with the state’s high court, claiming the governor exceeded his constitutional authority by appropriating funds federal governments without legislative oversight.

Candelaria said NM Policy Report that the State Supreme Court “finally did the right thing”, giving responsibility to the Legislature instead of just one person.

“As a citizen of this state, I am reassured to know that decisions about this money will be made through a transparent open and public appropriation process, not behind closed doors where the governor can consult his favorites. policies on how to distribute these funds in his political interests, ”Candelaria said. “It would have been a really dangerous precedent for New Mexico.”

Four other Democratic state senators joined the case as interveners, echoing the argument that federal funds, such as COVID-19 stimulus money, should be controlled by the Assembly legislative. Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, argued on behalf of the four additional senators in court on Wednesday and stressed that the petition had little to do with Lujan Grisham or ARPA funds in particular.

“This case is not just about these funds, because other funds could come in. This case is not about this governor, ”Ivey-Soto told the judges. “This case is about building our constitution.”

Candelaria, Lujan Grisham’s outspoken Democratic critic, said NM Policy Report he agreed with Ivey-Soto’s sentiment, but Candelaria also criticized his own party leadership for not supporting him in filing the petition.

“I think this is exactly the prospect that the leadership in the Senate has completely lost,” Candelaria said. “I don’t think I should have dropped this case on my own, with Senator Baca, as an individual lawmaker.”

State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, as an interested party, was also represented by a lawyer in court on Wednesday. Eichenberg’s attorney, Ivey-Soto, and Candelaria have all argued that federal funds that come to the state without a specific earmarking should be controlled by the legislature, not the governor.

Holly Agajanian, chief legal counsel to Lujan Grisham, argued, in part, that since Lujan Grisham herself has advocated for federal stimulus money, her office should control how it is spent. At one point in the proceedings, Agajanian attempted to overturn the argument of petitioners and interveners that the governor would only have a say in spending if federal funds were allocated to a specific State Department. In a 1970s case, for example, the state Supreme Court ruled that funding for higher education could be appropriated by the governor.

Therefore, Agajanian argued, there should be no significant difference between money for a department overseen by the governor and money sought by the governor himself.

“How did the state get this money? The executive requested it, ”Agajanian told the judges.

As the judges asked critical questions of all the lawyers involved, one of the most critical questions to the governor’s office came from Judge David Thomson, who was appointed to the High Court by Lujan Grisham.

“It’s a billion dollars in public money and that’s what the Legislature does,” said Thomson. “I mean, I learned that in second grade. They control the purse strings.

“Judge, it depends on what’s in the purse,” Agajanian replied.

In conclusion, Agajanian said that although the court did not order Lujan Grisham to stop spending the federal money while the case was pending, the governor chose to do so on his own.

“I want to note that the governor did not spend any of the funds during the course of this case, as it is not his aim to reverse the judicial process,” Agajanian said.

Lujan Grisham spent $ 700 million of the $ 1.8 billion received by the state, leaving about $ 1.1 million in the Legislature.

Speaking at a press conference to announce new staff to her administration, Lujan Grisham said she was disappointed with the court’s decision, but the decision was now in the hands of lawmakers.

“I was disappointed with the Supreme Court ruling, but it’s not going to rain on my parade and I don’t think it’s going to rain on the Legislative Parade,” said Lujan Grisham.

Lujan Grisham is expected to recall the Legislature to Santa Fe for a special session on district redistribution next month, but she may also add APRA ownership to the priority list.

Outside of the procedure, Baca was not allowed to enter the rooms for allegedly refusing to disclose his COVID-19 vaccination status.

At the start of the proceedings, Chief Justice Vigil announced that the only people allowed into the courtroom were lawyers who presented proof of vaccination.

“The Supreme Court takes COVID prevention measures very, very seriously,” Vigil said. “For this reason, all members of the tribunal have been fully vaccinated and we are wearing our masks. In this regard, the only people allowed in the courtroom are the pro se parties and the parties’ lawyers, who have all provided the court with proof that they are fully vaccinated and wear masks. “

In a statement, New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce called it a “devastating day for the reputation of the New Mexico Supreme Court.”

“Unfortunately, it’s no surprise that a tribunal made up of Democrats and governor-appointed judges would bar the sole Republican plaintiff in a case against the governor,” Pearce said.

Candelaria said NM Policy Report that he would not rule on the merits of the court rules, but said he “certainly has the absolute power to make his own rules regarding his court”.

“This is certainly an issue that Senator Baca needs to discuss with the Supreme Court,” Candelaria said. I have no comment to make on this at this time, other than to say that I publicly thank Senator Baca for joining me in a bipartisan way to defend the principles and take a political position.

Hannah Grover contributed to this story


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