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.