State supreme court sets date for arguments on pandemic aid case

The New Mexico Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case over who has the authority to distribute federal pandemic aid funds in November. The case, which will have oral arguments on Nov. 17, is brought by legislators who say the governor’s veto of language that directed the use of federal COVID-19 pandemic aid is illegal and that the Legislature should have the authority to direct where the money goes. 

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, a Democrat from Albuquerque, and Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, a Republican from Belen, filed the petition in September. 

At the time, the two said the governor’s action was unconstitutional. The Lujan Grisham administration said that previous state supreme court precedent allowed the governor to direct federal funds. “The Supreme Court of New Mexico has concluded that federal contributions are not a proper subject of the Legislature’s appropriative power, and the Legislature’s attempt to control the use of such funds infringes ‘the executive function of administration,’” Lujan Grisham wrote in her veto message regarding the funds. 

When asked about the dispute when State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, a Democrat, said he believed the money should be handled by the Legislature, a spokeswoman for the governor said she believed the Legislature had the authority to dispense state, not federal funds.

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.

NM Supreme Court denies stay, asks for response in relief money case

The New Mexico Supreme Court denied a request by two state senators to stop Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham from further spending federal COVID-19 relief funds. But the high court also gave the governor and the state treasurer until Oct. 15 to respond to the original petition. 

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, and Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, filed a petition last month asking the state supreme court to issue an order to stop Lujan Grisham from further appropriating money that New Mexico received as part of the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The two senators also asked the court to issue a stay in order to stop any further spending until the court case is settled. 

State Republicans have largely been critical of Lujan Grisham’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. Candelaria, although a member of the same political party as Lujan Grisham has often criticized the governor as well as Democratic Senate leadership.

Two NM lawmakers ask state supreme court to give federal funding discretion to legislature

In a move, not likely surprising to political insiders, a Democratic New Mexico state senator who has been a vocal critic of the governor joined one of his Republican colleagues in an attempt to block further spending of federal relief money. 

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, along with Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, filed a petition over the weekend with the New Mexico Supreme Court in an attempt to stop Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham from further spending federal money without legislative input. 

In a statement, Candelaria said no one person should have the authority to handle federal funds sent to New Mexico. 

“When I became a senator almost a decade ago, I took an oath to defend the Constitution and laws of the state of New Mexico. We have filed this petition to halt the Governor’s unconstitutional efforts to usurp the Legislature’s appropriations power by claiming that she, and she alone, has the power to decide how billions of dollars in federal grant funds are spent,” Candelaria said. “In our country, no one is above the law and no one person should ever have the power to decide, unilaterally, how much people are taxed or how public money is spent.”

At issue is $1.75 billion of federal funds New Mexico received as part of the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Some state lawmakers have repeatedly called for legislative control of federal stimulus money and during the regular 2021 legislative session, lawmakers attempted to appropriate money from ARPA in the state budget. Lujan Grisham issued a partial veto of that budget bill and cited a 1974 New Mexico Supreme Court case in her explanation for not giving the Legislature oversight in ARPA funds.  

“The Supreme Court of New Mexico has concluded that federal contributions are not a proper subject of the Legislature’s appropriative power, and the Legislature’s attempt to control the use of such funds infringes ‘the executive function of administration,’” Lujan Grisham wrote in her veto message. 

Part of that case, which was filed by then-Republican state Sen. William Sago, also involved federal appropriations.

Governor, legislators speak about end of session

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislators spoke about legislative successes and what they expect to happen with bills that didn’t cross the finish line, including a pending special session to pass recreational cannabis. 

Lujan Grisham said she was proud of how much work was done in a session marred by a pandemic. 

“It’s incredibly difficult and challenging, to debate, to draft, to engage in policy making,” she said. “It’s everything from economic relief, education and health care in an environment where you absolutely have to meet the COVID safe practices.”

Particularly, Lujan Grisham praised lawmakers for passing a liquor law reform, approving a proposed constitutional amendment to use state funds to pay for early childhood education and decriminalizing abortion.   

Democratic House of Representatives leadership held a press conference a few minutes after adjourning sine die on the House chamber floor to discuss Democratic accomplishments for this session. Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, of Santa Fe, said the focus for this session was recovery. 

The three-pronged approach to recovery, Egolf said, was education, health and the economy. Of the more than 170 pieces of legislation that passed this year, some of the bills highlighted during the press conference included passage of SB 10, the Respect New Mexico Women and Families Act, which repealed the 1969 statute banning abortion, as well as HB 4 the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, which ends qualified immunity as a legal defense in the state and allows for financial remedy up to $2 million and the potential to recover attorney’s fees if a person’s constitutional rights have been violated. Lujan Grisham signed SB 10 into law in February.

Paid sick leave passes Senate after lengthy, acrimonious debate including a filibuster

The state Senate passed the Healthy Workplaces bill 25 to 16 after a lengthy debate that stretched into the early hours of Friday during which Democrats sparred against each other on the chamber floor over the treatment of the bill’s sponsor, while Republicans railed against the bill and one even held a lengthy filibuster. HB 20 would mandate that all private sector employers provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Private sector employees could accrue up to 64 hours a year of paid sick leave. The bill would not go into effect until July 1, 2022. Advocates had pushed for mandated paid sick leave for years, including at the local level in Albuquerque.

Environment protections bill passes New Mexico Senate

A bill that would allow the state of New Mexico to adopt air quality and hazardous waste rules more stringent than federal regulations survived a challenge Friday from Senate Republicans, who had previously stalled the measure with a procedural maneuver that kept it in limbo for days. Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, the bill would amend the Air Quality Control Act and the Hazardous Waste Act to allow rules more rigid than federal standards. “In each case … there must be substantial evidence that the proposed state rules are more protective of public health and the environment,” said Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat. The bill passed along a mostly party-line 23-15 vote. Democrat George Muñoz of Gallup sided with Republicans in opposing the measure, which goes to the state House of Representatives for consideration. 

Wirth argued that Senate Bill 8 would provide what he called consistent, New Mexico-focused environmental oversight.

Black leaders call for public apology from GOP, claiming racism

Leaders of Black communities and organizations in New Mexico are asking for public apologies and stronger condemnation of recent remarks and actions by Republican lawmakers that dozens of African Americans say represent long-standing systemic racism in the Roundhouse. Earlier this month during a confirmation hearing, Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, questioned Cabinet nominee Sonya Smith’s ability to represent New Mexicans while leading the Department of Veterans Services as a Black woman. “Do you expect after your time here over the years, that you’ve been immersed in this culture enough in this state? That you feel comfortable entering a position where we’re a state with 2.6 percent of the population is African American in this state. And 48 percent is Hispanic or Hispanic mix?” Baca asked.

Senate Minority Leader apologizes to Black Cabinet nominee for ‘insensitive’ questioning

Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen said Monday he had apologized to Veterans Services Secretary-designate Sonya Smith for what he called “that insensitive line of questioning.” Baca has been under fire for questions and comments with racial overtones he made during a Friday confirmation hearing for Smith. “Do you expect that in your time here, in seven years, that you’ve been immersed in this culture enough in this state that you feel comfortable entering a position?” Baca had asked Smith, who is Black. He noted  2.6 percent of the state’s population is African American, while “48 percent is Hispanic or a Hispanic mix.

New Mexico state senator faces criticism over questioning of Black Cabinet nominee

The top-ranking Republican in the state Senate has come under fire for what some said was an undercurrent of racism during his questioning of a Black woman who heads the Department of Veterans Services. The encounter occurred Friday during a confirmation hearing for Secretary-designate Sonya Smith, when Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, asked Smith if she felt “comfortable adequately representing” New Mexico’s various races and ethnicities, including Hispanic, white and Black residents. 

The question followed some interplay between Smith and Baca about the need to communicate with all cultures about different issues, including the coronavirus pandemic and the vaccine for the virus. 

“That really isn’t what I’m — I mean that is an immutable trait, as I’m a Hispanic man, so I guess what we do in our everyday life we do as that,” Baca said, telling Smith she could answer the question as she wished. “Are you asking do I feel comfortable representing the Department of Veterans Services as a Black woman? Is that what you are asking?” Smith asked Baca.