NM high court: Legislature, not governor, has authority over federal COVID-19 funds

The New Mexico Supreme Court, in a ruling from the bench, ordered Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to stop using any unspent federal COVID-19 stimulus money without approval from the state Legislature. 

New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Michael Vigil, after a brief deliberation by the justices, read the ruling. 

“The court grants standing to the petitioners on the basis of great public importance,” Vigil said. “One, the court determines that a writ is appropriate in this case, and the court will order that a writ of prohibition and mandamus, prohibiting the governor and the state treasurer and all other state officials subject to their authority from transferring, encumbering, committing or appropriating any additional funds out of the state [American Rescue Plan Act] account in the state treasury absent legislative appropriation.”

The court’s decision was the culmination of weeks of court filings in a case filed by two state senators. Democratic State Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque and Republican Sen. Greg Baca of Belen jointly filed a petition with the state’s high court, arguing that the governor overstepped her constitutional authority by appropriating federal funds without legislative oversight. 

Candelaria told NM Political Report that the state supreme court “Ultimately did the right thing,” by placing the responsibility with the Legislature instead of one person. “As a citizen of this state, it gives me great comfort to know that decisions about this money are going to be made through a transparent open and public appropriations process and not behind closed doors where the governor gets to consult with her political favorites on how to dole out these funds in her political interests,” Candelaria said. “That would have been a really dangerous precedent for New Mexico.”

Four other Democratic state senators joined the case as intervenors, echoing the argument that federal funds, such as the COVID-19 stimulus money, should be controlled by the Legislature.