SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – In a slip opinion filed by the New Mexico Supreme Court, the justices say $1.75 billion in federal COVID-19 funding should be controlled by the state’s legislature, not the governor.
New Mexico received $1.75 billion from the American Rescue Plan in 2021. The federal funds were intended to help state, local, and tribal governments respond to the impacts of COVID-19. Lawmakers assigned the funds to various uses in 2021, but Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham vetoed portions of the funding and claimed the legislature didn’t have the authority to direct the federal funding.
Now-former Senator Jacob Candelaria and current Senator Greg Baca (R-Bernalillo and Valencia Counties) brought a lawsuit against the governor. By the time the argument over who controls the money made it to court, the governor had spent about $600 million of the funds, Supreme Court Justice Julie Vargas wrote in the slip opinion.
A court put a halt to the spending, and the legislature regained control of the funds before appropriating hundreds of millions of dollars during a special legislative session in 2021. They put the cash towards projects such as the construction of an acute care hospital in Valencia County – that project is still in progress.
Now, the New Mexico Supreme Court is saying that because the federal government gave states a broad charge on how to spend the money, the money should be appropriated by the legislature. If the federal funds had come with a clear mandate on how they’re supposed to be spent, the governor then may have had the power to spend the funds.
In response to the court’s opinion, Sen. Baca released a statement: “Today was a victory for the people of New Mexico and the Constitution. I am grateful that the state’s highest court issued a thoughtful and decisive opinion that will now serve as a guidepost for the limited bounds of executive power. It is the right of the people of New Mexico through their 112 legislators to decide how their taxpayer dollars are spent. ”
Despite the clear ruling in this case, the New Mexico Supreme Court slip opinion notes that they’re not making a “bright-line rule.” In other words, each time there’s a debate over who controls federal funds, the courts will have to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
*Note: The opinion released was a “slip” opinion, meaning it’s the initial version that may be revised before being officially published.