Lujan Grisham, legislators wrestle for control in pandemic spending debate

Santa Fe New Mexican – First, there was a tug of war over who could control funds sent from Washington.

Now, the Legislature is questioning whether the governor overstepped her legal authority.

In the midst of all the other tumult the pandemic has brought to New Mexico, the coronavirus also is sparking tension within state government — in the form of a quarrel over control between legislators and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The source of friction?

Clearly, there’s some disagreement regarding public health orders, such as a recent one reinstating business closures. Similar debates are raging nationwide.

Yet so far, a more tangible division may center on how the governor has spent money to fight the virus.

“There’s a real tension building up between the executive and the legislative members,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Prior to last month’s special session, the two branches of government argued over which one had the power to spend federal stimulus dollars approved for novel coronavirus efforts, a dispute the governor ultimately won when she vetoed — and then replaced — certain parts of legislators’ budget bill.

Then on Thursday, House and Senate leadership called on Lujan Grisham to explain the legality of her decision to unilaterally authorize emergency funding to deal with the outbreak “in excess of the statutory limits.”

Republicans, who are a minority in the Legislature, had been arguing since early in the pandemic that the governor violated state law through that spending, and they urged a key legislative panel to look into the matter.

The issue took on greater significance when that committee, the Legislative Council, voted unanimously to ask attorneys to look into the spending earlier this month. The panel includes top Democrats, who took the uncommon step of questioning the legality of decisions made by an executive from their own party.

Asked about the emergency purchases, the acting secretary of the state Department of Finance and Administration said they were imperative, particularly as many of them came in the frantic early stages of an unprecedented outbreak.

“This was kind of a no-brainer,” Debbie Romero said. “We needed to get testing up, we needed to get [personal protective equipment] purchased, we needed to get food distributions out. I mean, we were closing schools and we wanted to make sure kids had meals.”

The Governor’s Office maintains it fully complied with state law, saying the state’s All Hazards Emergency Management Act allowed the governor to authorize the spending.

“Not only does the governor have the ability to do so, she has the duty to do so,” spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said.

‘A line in the sand’

Shortly after the coronavirus outbreak began, Lujan Grisham issued an executive order March 27 to make available $20 million in emergency funds, and another order April 8 allocated $10 million more.

In those first couple of months of the pandemic, the state’s finance department — in conjunction with health, homeland security and other agencies navigating the outbreak — approved numerous emergency purchases amounting to millions of dollars each to buy personal protective equipment and other coronavirus-related goods and services.

A May purchase order, for instance, shows the state government spent $2.9 million to give Cochiti Pueblo broadband connectivity so residents and K-12 students could use the internet without having to go to the library and violate social-distancing measures.

Another set of orders, authorized in April and May, allocated $2.46 million to buy respirators and gloves.

Almost immediately, Republican legislators began crying foul, saying state law limits governors to emergency appropriations of only $750,000 each and arguing the governor should have obtained approval from the Legislature first.

“She was out of line when she did that,” House Minority Leader Jim Townsend said Friday. “I think she knew she was out of line, and she did it anyway.”

Some fiscally conservative Democrats soon joined the chorus.

Legislators “have to draw a line in the sand if they’re going to protect their appropriation authority and say, ‘Hey you’ve overstepped, governor, when you’ve done this,’ ” said Smith, D-Deming.

Last week, Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen and House Speaker Brian Egolf sent a letter to the governor on behalf of the Legislative Council asking her to justify the spending so legislators “may further analyze the separation of powers concerns that have been raised.”

Some in the legislative branch also have taken issue with a policy exemption approved in March by the state’s finance department that allowed agencies to pay for emergency goods and services before they received them.

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  • eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

    The uncertain circumstances that New Mexico (and really just the world) has found itself in has created issues in the role of government. The government has allocated a lot of money to help communities battle the corona virus and to keep the economy running smoothly. This nation has a close relationship with the economy and it often puts the economy over the needs of its people. This is perhaps due to the aversion to socialism this country has and its deep marriage to capitalism. Late stage capitalism, however, is incredibly damaging to the average consumer as the rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer. This debate about money is at the center of Grisham’s fight with the Legislators. Many of the Legislators do not condone the spending and they believe that Governor Grisham has overstepped her powers. On one side of the issue are the legislators and it is true that the governor may have spent a little too much money without the permission of the legislators. This then begs the question of if she had asked, would they have given her the money, and knowing the government works slowly, would their approval have come in a short enough time to prevent disasters? On the other hand, the pandemic was hurting the people and the Governor was spending money to keep them safe from the corona virus. She spent money on supplies to help communities across New Mexico from having wide outbreaks of corona that could have endangered many citizens. Granted, she may not have had the authority to do so, but in extreme times, extreme measures are sometimes needed. I don’t see why it really matters if she had the authority to do so as long as she used her position to help her citizens during a difficult time. As long as her effect was positive, the issue is a little trite. If the people are safe, the government is doing its job right.

    • 10:14 am - July 21, 2020

  • SamuraiSword

    Although I agree with the decisions that Gov. Grisham made when it comes to emergency relief funds, I still think it’s important to not give too much power to one person. You can like what someone is doing without approving of how they’re doing it and that applies in this situation. Though the emergency funding is extremely important, it’s not right to pick and choose when checks and balances should be applicable based on whether or not I agree with the decision. The legislative branch and governor’s office need to find a way to work together quickly and effectively so that they can help the citizens of New Mexico without compromising on something so essential to how our government runs effectively like checks and balances.

    • 11:47 am - July 21, 2020

  • appetizing_carl

    Although it appears that Governor Lujan Grisham spent large amounts of money on worthy aid for the citizens of New Mexico, it is equally justifiable for the legislatures to investigate the source of the spending as well as firmly instruct her to get approval from them before making any costly decisions. This is not an economic issue shadowing the needs of the citizens, but rather a discussion on the abuse of power by a political leader in office. Sporadic spending, even if it has now been proved to have been a warranted purchase, should always be run by other branches of government to preserve the system of checks and balances. The governor now has the weight of the people’s suspicions to carry, when all could have been avoided had she remained calm in this time of crisis and continued to work effectively with the legislative branch. Her credibility has been undermined even if her spending intentions were pure.

    • 2:15 pm - July 22, 2020

  • rain

    In times of crisis, the executive branch broadens its powers to hopefully in result come up with a fast and beneficial solution to the time pressing issue. This concept seems in principal pretty straight forward and has often been done in the past, for example during the great depression. But we must question the political implications of such unchecked actions. What does the public think? How do the other branches view this? And how do different levels of government differ? Much of the public has been disappointed in Trump’s handling of COVID because of his ignorance at the start, inaction, and lack of research as well as knowledge of the topic. But in New Mexico’s case, it has been more unclear because one has to question what has more value the economy or the risk of more cases and deaths, instead of whether or not to take action. This shows how public opinion can shift based on policy, individual, political party, and ideals all making such grabs for power more complex. The executive branch, the one that takes such actions, justifies them based on urgency because they are an individual that can take immediate action. The legislative branch argues that the balance of power must be preserved especially in such impactful decisions therefore allowing them input on such policies. The judicial branch must then decide which of these viewpoints the law upholds both in the specific scenario as well as too set precedence. Overall we can see that the governor or president taking action without their congress has both a plus side and downside with many factors.

    • 11:16 pm - July 22, 2020

  • qwerty

    Although having both branches of government work together seamlessly may seem great in an ideal world, these desperate times of the pandemic have instigated a call to action and Governor Grisham was just doing what she could to act on this call. In the throws of the pandemic, we must be thinking long term and for the well-being of the people, not focusing in on these arbitrary lines set in place while the US did not even have the Coronavirus pandemic in its sights to worry about. If Governor Grisham had not “overstepped her legal authority,” then it is highly possible that republicans and more liberal democrats would have gone against these emergency funds, putting New Mexico citizens backseat. In this case, New Mexico would have been slower in responding to the virus and more deaths would result from this delayed response. Governor Grisham made the right choice in choosing to act and provide New Mexico with more means to help calm the flames rising in the midst of the his pandemic.

    • 11:09 am - July 23, 2020

  • aidan.cooley

    In uncertain times with the lives of millions on the line, the power of the Governor in this case, and the executive branch in general should get larger. We elected our governor because in times like this we believe they have what it takes to make the right decision for her people. There are so many factors to include in this idea. Other branches will have their disagreements and there is a fine argument to be make for the role of checks and balances in a time of crisis. But holding together an equally powerful government, and handle the pandemic might be to much to do at a time. Yes ideally we could run a perfectly functional government with all branches being equal. But also ideally we wouldn’t have a pandemic in the first place. You gotta work with what you got.

    • 3:44 pm - July 23, 2020

  • zyxwv

    Gov. Lujan Grisham’s decision to authorize federal funds without approval from the Legislature seems reasonable, given the context. With a disaster around the corner, the governor acted quickly to mitigate the pandemic’s devastating effects. It is the executive branch, after all, not the legislative branch, that has the ability to move swiftly in times of crisis. And while I can understand that legislators are worried about the precedent this sets (does this make future governors too powerful, by giving them complete control over federal funds during emergencies?), the positives outweigh the negatives. The governor’s actions may have caused an unfortunate precedent to emerge, but they have also resulted in a lower COVID-19 death toll. Had slow, legislative action been taken instead, more New Mexicans would have died.

    • 8:27 pm - July 23, 2020

  • undergroundbarron

    I think in any circumstance is is always imperative to uphold separation of powers. Concerns about Gov. Grisham’s possible abuse of power are completely justifiable as it is very important to ensure that any newfound power in times of crisis doesn’t continue after the time has ended. I think any power can easily corrupt a leader and should be closely facilitated because it is so easy to grow bigger, as a pandemic is a universally decided good reason to take more in the first place. With that being said, it has been seen throughout history how a government grows in any time of need to care for the people, some might argue that is the government’s main job- to provide for the people. While the momentary lapse of heightened power for Gov. Grisham is certainly something to be watchful of, the other side is the possibility of a shortage of medical masks, of children going hungry without school lunches, of limited virus tests.

    • 10:48 pm - July 24, 2020

  • DefectiveStove

    While I can understand how republicans feel that Michelle Lujan Grisham is overstepping boundaries and abusing her executive powers, I do believe that she made the right decision. I feel that in the time that it would take for the legislative branch to decide how they would spend the federal funds, the pandemic would grow to be much more devastating to the citizens of New Mexico. It was crucial that the governor acted quickly with ensuring that NM had adequate amounts of PPE, in order to keep the fatality and infection rate of Covid-19 low. As a result of Grisham’s fast acting, New Mexico was able to maintain a relatively low infection rate prior to reopening plans. If Grisham waited out for legislation to pass for apportioning funds, it may have been far too late in keeping the virus semi-contained. Frugal legislators may have stalled out legislation to get what they wanted, and as a result, many New Mexicans could have suffered even more than they have currently. During times of crisis, it is important for our leaders to act quickly, logically, and not frugally. As a result, their executive powers may slightly expand in order to keep civilians safe.

    • 10:52 pm - July 24, 2020