NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that lawmakers, and not the governor, will have the authority to spend more than $1 billion in remaining federal stimulus money. Senators Greg Baca (R-Belen) and Jacob Candelaria (D-Albuquerque) filed the lawsuit against Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham after she vetoed the legislature’s plans to spend the $1.7 billion the state received from the American Rescue Plan Act.
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After hearing around two hours of oral arguments Tuesday morning, justices began deliberating the case in private quarters around 11:30 a.m. Around 12:15 p.m., the justices made a brief decision from the bench, announcing the lawmakers have standing in the case.
“The court grants standing to the petitioners on the basis of great public importance,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Vigil. “The court will order a writ of prohibition and mandamus, prohibiting the Governor and the State Treasurer and all other state officials subject to their accord from transferring, encumbering, committing, expending or appropriating any additional funds out of the state ARPA account in the state treasury, absent of appropriation.”
The ruling effectively prohibits the governor’s office from continuing to spend any of the remaining roughly $1.1 billion in ARPA funds, without legislative approval. Counsel for Gov. Lujan Grisham noted Wednesday the executive branch has not spent any of the remaining funds since the Supreme Court took up the case.
Some lawmakers are calling this ruling a win for New Mexico, claiming they are best equipped to decide how this money should be spent as part of the state’s ongoing pandemic recovery effort.
“We now have 112 eyes in the legislature that recognize needs across the state and I think it really can’t be argued that that’s better than just one individual making those decisions,” Republican Senate leader Gregory Baca stated.
Sen. Baca and Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria filed the lawsuit against the governor after she vetoed lawmakers’ plans for spending more than $1 billion from the feds.
Under the governor’s directive, the state has spent $600 million to recover the unemployment compensation fund. Sen. Baca adds that the legislature agrees with how much went to unemployment, so there’s no issue with rectifying those costs.
Another $6 million was paid for the $100 voucher incentive for New Mexicans to get vaccinated. Moving forward, Sen. Baca says the state legislature could review how to spend the remaining $1.06 billion in ARPA funds in this upcoming session.
Democratic Sen. Candelaria said it should be invested in helping the state’s economy.
“Last session the legislature sent $100 million to our state’s lowest-income families and small businesses who report such low levels of profit. I think we should do something similar,” Sen. Candelaria explained.
Republican Sen. Crystal Diamond says while lawmakers may side with some of the governor’s decisions, the collective legislature should ultimately decide.
“We were elected by the people to allocate how we best can spend tax dollar monies here in New Mexico. No one person, including the governor, should have unilateral authority over how to spend all of this federal money that’s coming to New Mexico,” said Sen. Diamond. “We may be in line with many of the initiatives the governor wanted to spend the money on and we may not but it’s important for New Mexico to make sure the constitution is being upheld.”
State Sen. Harold Pope Jr. says the next steps in deciding where that money goes, will come in the new year. No matter who has spending rights to the billion dollars left in funds, lawmakers say what matters is getting it to those most in need.
“We were already working with the governor on this but this means that we’ll be doing this and it sounds like we’ll be doing this in the 30-day session,” said Sen. Pope Jr. “We need to get this money out but we also need to be careful that we get it out to the people in need, but we also do it the right way.”
So, what does Wednesday’s ruling mean for other federal money coming into the state, like the approximately $3.7 billion in infrastructure funds? Legislators will know more about just how broad the state supreme court’s ruling is once the court releases its opinion on the decision in the coming days.
KRQE News 13 asked the governor if the decision will affect her plan to spend those billions. She said she and lawmakers will continue working in a partnership.
“I was disappointed in the Supreme Court decision, but look, I’m not going to let it rain on my parade,” said Gov. Lujan Grisham. “It means we have to do some extra work together.”
The Supreme Court banned Sen. Baca from the courtroom before he was set to address the court in this case. He said he was denied access after refusing to share his vaccination status, and also wasn’t allowed to appear remotely. He said he hopes the court reconsiders that process for future cases.