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May 4—With billions of dollars at stake in a who-holds-the-purse-strings power fight, the viable resolution looks to be the courts.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last month vetoed lawmakers' plan to allocate $1.1 billion of federal stimulus funds to things like the state's unemployment fund, a popular college scholarship program and highway repairs. The governor, who is also a lawyer, argues lawmakers intruded on the powers of the executive branch to handle federal funds. A bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers says she overstepped and they have authority over appropriating undesignated general funding.
The $1.1 billion is part of more than $19 billion in federal stimulus funding earmarked for New Mexico. (It's a huge amount; the state budget by comparison is $7.4 billion.)
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, says she'll object if state agencies try to spend the $1.1 billion without legislative approval. Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque and an attorney, says the governor's actions were unconstitutional. Albuquerque Democrat Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, a member of the House budget-writing committee and an attorney, says lawmakers "need further clarification and direction from the courts as to what our appropriation powers look like."
House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, urged the Legislative Council, a panel of legislative leaders from both parties and chambers, to discuss the vetoes at its meeting Monday or to set the debate for the June meeting, with the Legislature's attorneys present.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat who presided over the meeting,
pointed out that a veto discussion was not on the agenda, making it inappropriate to take up at the meeting. He said he would talk with legislative leaders from both parties about whether to add the topic to the council's next meeting agenda.
Regardless of the council's action, individual lawmakers could file a lawsuit challenging the governor's changes.
The vetoed items, all needs arguably caused or exacerbated by the global pandemic, include:
—$600 million to stabilize the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and $5 million for reemployment services
—$100 million in LEDA funds that directly support community economic opportunities
—$100 million for the Lottery Scholarship and $20 million for early childhood education
—$200 million for DOT major road projects
—$25 million for housing assistance, small businesses, nonprofits, and tourism and hospitality organizations and $10 million in tourism funds
—$50 million for Medicaid
Lawmakers essentially have three options: they can give up and let the governor decide unilaterally how to spend federal stimulus funds; they can call an extraordinary session and try to override the governor's vetoes; or they can go to court. Lundstrom signaled last week she, too, would not rule out litigation.
The governor cited a state Supreme Court ruling, Sego v. Kirkpatrick, in a veto, but some lawmakers have a different interpretation of the same 1974 ruling and point out the state Constitution requires legislative appropriation for money paid out of the state treasury and a state law calls for broad revenue to go into the general fund.
Democrats and Republicans alike have expressed concerns about the governor's vetoes. Given the magnitude of the money, lack of clarity and varying opinions of the myriad attorneys involved, we need the courts to resolve the dispute.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.