Gov. Lujan Grisham announces special session for redistricting, appropriating COVID relief funds will be next week

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham officially announced on Wednesday that she will call the state Legislature into a special session next week to approve new legislative, congressional and Public Education Commission districts. In addition to redistricting, lawmakers will also be called to appropriate federal COVID-19 relief funds. 

In a statement on Wednesday, Lujan Grisham said she is confident the Legislature will work collaboratively and diligently to finalize new district maps so that all New Mexicans are fairly represented. 

“A fundamental part of our American democracy is ensuring that all voters are represented, and the redistricting effort will make sure that the right of all New Mexicans to vote is complemented by fair representation through their elected officials,” Lujan Grisham said. “I look forward to a productive and collegial session and know lawmakers and legislative leadership will as always carry out the people’s business thoughtfully and respectfully, in a way that honors this important work.” 

Updating district maps is a process that takes place every ten years, on the heels of the federal census. This year, thanks to a new law, the redistricting process began with a citizen redistricting committee that approved several different recommendations for the Legislature to consider. But, the Legislature is not required to accept any of those recommendations.

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.

State treasurer says COVID-19 relief money should be governed by Legislature

The New Mexico state treasurer agrees that federal COVID-19 relief funds should be handled by the state Legislature and not the governor, according to a response filed on Tuesday by his attorney. 

Treasurer Tim Eichenberg was named as a party of interest in a case filed last month by state Sens. Jacob Candelaria, a Democrat, and Greg Baca, a Republican. Candelaria and Baca asked the New Mexico Supreme Court to order Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to stop appropriating any more money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and to leave the rest of the spending decisions to the state Legislature. 

In a response on behalf of Eichenberg, his attorney wrote that while the ARPA funds can be spent legally on a variety of different issues, the Legislature should decide where it would be best spent. 

“The Treasurer respectfully submits that the question of whether some or all funds should be used for any or all of these areas requires considerations of public policy and public priorities that must be conducted in the open with opportunity for public participation, which can and will only happen in a legislative process,” the response reads. 

During the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers tried to include spending of the federal money in the state budget. Lujan Grisham line-item vetoed that appropriation on the grounds that a previous state supreme court case ruled that the spending of certain federal funds is the responsibility of the governor, not the legislature.  

In their initial petition to the state supreme court, Candelaria and Baca argued that the case Lujan Grisham cited in her veto message was narrowly focused on federal funds specifically designated for higher education. In this case, the two senators argued, the federal funds had a wide range of acceptable uses. 

Eichenberg’s lawyer also argued that Congress approved the relief money to be used in a wide variety of ways, “according to needs assessments made by state decision-makers, driven by state considerations, and priorities.”

And those decision-makers, Echineberg’s lawyer argued, are legislators. 

“Legislative action—the power to make law and appropriate money from the State Treasury—rests exclusively with the Legislature,” the response reads.