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 suprme 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.

Federal judge denies injunction for NM public health order

A federal judge ruled earlier this week that two women who filed a lawsuit against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham did not adequately show how a state emergency public health order requiring vaccines for certain activities violated their rights. 

U.S District Court Judge Martha Vásquez denied a motion filed by the two women, which asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to stop one of the state’s public health orders that require New Mexico State Fair attendees and public health workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine.  

Vásquez wrote that the two plaintiffs failed to show how they would face irreparable harm if the court did not issue an injunction. 

“To obtain preliminary injunctive relief, Plaintiffs are required to prove that they are substantially likely to succeed on the merits of their claims, that they will suffer irreparable injury if the Court denies the requested injunction, that the balance of harms weighs in their favor, and that the injunction would not be adverse to the public interest,” Vásquez wrote. “Plaintiffs fail to satisfy their burden as to any, let alone all, of these factors.”

One plaintiff works as a nurse for Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque and the other is a mother of children who were set to show livestock at the New Mexico State Fair. Both women claimed that the public health order violated their state and federal constitutional rights. Both women also maintained that they should not be forced to get a COVID-19 vaccine that is approved under an emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration. Shortly after the suit was filed, the FDA fully authorized the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19. 

“Accordingly, the provisions of the [Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act] quoted by Plaintiff, which are applicable only to medical products under an [Emergency Use Authorization], are not applicable to the administration of the Pfizer vaccine to individuals 16 years of age and older,” Vásquez wrote.

Some don’t know what they’ll do when federal unemployment assistance ends Sept. 4

With federal unemployment assistance ending in New Mexico on Sept. 4, Albuquerque resident Rhiannon Chavez-Ross worries she could lose her house. A single mom with two children, Chavez-Ross lost her party and event business when the COVID-19 pandemic began. She said she received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of less than $1,000 for her business last year and she has been on unemployment benefits since the early days of the virus’ spread. But, she said she has had to supplement her unemployment relief with money from her savings.

Judge denies restraining order in lawsuit against vaccine requirement

A federal lawsuit against New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, over one of her public health orders, is moving forward. But the judge in the case dismissed a request to issue a temporary restraining order to block vaccine requirements for health care workers and state fair attendees. 

U.S. District Court Judge Martha Vázquez, through an order on Monday, fast-tracked the lawsuit against Lujan Grisham, but said there was not enough justification to warrant a restraining order. The suit was filed by two New Mexico residents who argued that a recent public health order requiring vaccines for certain activities violates both the New Mexico and U.S. Constitution. 

In her order, Vázquez wrote that the two plaintiffs, Jennifer Blackford of Rio Rancho and Talisha Valdez of Union County, still have options under the public health order. 

“While alleging that the [public health order] would prevent Blackford from retaining her employment and Valdez from entering the State Fair, the Complaint ignores the existence of the exemptions to the PHO’s vaccination requirements,” Vázquez wrote. “As noted above, the PHO allows for three exemptions to the vaccination requirements for hospital workers and State Fair attendees, including an exemption that can be supported by a mere statement as to the manner in which the administration of a vaccination conflicts with the beliefs of the individual.”

The public health order, in part, requires proof of vaccination to attend the New Mexico State Fair. It also requires healthcare workers to provide proof of vaccination. 

But the order also provides exemptions and an alternative to getting vaccinated.

Majority of voters back mask mandates

A majority of New Mexico voters support a mandate to wear masks indoors, an action that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the state Department of Health took place last week a day after a poll conducted for NM Political Report ended. An even larger majority thought schoolchildren under the age of 12 should be required to wear masks in schools. The poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling for NM Political Report, found that 53 percent of New Mexico voters thought the state should require masks to be worn indoors, while 40 percent disagreed. Even more—55 percent thought that businesses should require masks for employees and customers, while 36 percent disagreed. This all is in the background of a slight majority, 51 percent, approving of Lujan Grisham’s COVID-19 response.

Slight majority of voters approve of governor’s, president’s handling of COVID-19

A poll of New Mexico voters showed that 51 percent approved of both Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and President Joe Biden’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling for NM Political Report, found that 44 percent disapproved of Biden’s handling of the pandemic, while just 41 percent disapproved of Lujan Grisham’s. Both are Democrats. Related: Poll: Lujan Grisham at 46% approval, 45% disapproval

Lujan Grisham has been in charge of New Mexico throughout the pandemic and instituted lockdowns, mask mandates and other orders to slow the spread of COVID-19 beginning last March. Last week, the governor announced a new mask mandate for public indoor spaces.

Poll: Lujan Grisham at 46% approval, 45% disapproval

A new poll finds that the governor’s approval rating is below 50 percent, but still slightly more people approve of her job than disapprove. The poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling for NM Political Report, found that 46 percent of New Mexico voters approve of Michelle Lujan Grisham’s job performance as governor compared to 45 percent who disapprove. This is very similar to the 47 percent who approve of President Joe Biden’s job performance and 45 percent who disapprove. NM Political Report will release more results from the poll throughout the week and the full results on Wednesday. Lujan Grisham is up for reelection in 2022, and a number of Republican candidates have already announced their intention to run.

New lawsuit claims NM public health order violates rights

The governor of New Mexico and one of her cabinet secretaries is again facing a lawsuit after issuing a COVID-19 public health order requiring healthcare workers, among other professions like teachers or school staff, to be vaccinated unless they qualify for an exemption. The order, which was issued on Aug. 18, also requires that anyone attending the upcoming New Mexico State Fair be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 

The day after the order was issued, two women filed a class action suit against the state, arguing that the order violated their right to refuse a vaccine that has not been fully approved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration. 

Rio Rancho resident Jennifer Blackford, is a registered nurse with Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque who has not been vaccinated for COVID-19. According to a signed affidavit, Blackford said that based on her medical training and her own independent research, she has decided not to get a COVID-19 vaccination. 

“It is my right to choose not to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and it violates my right to bodily integrity under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution to require that in order to keep my job I must inject an experimental [Emergency Use Authorization] vaccine into my body,” Blackford’s affidavit reads. 

Emergency Use Authorization is an expedited process, but is not described as “experimental” and is still made after clinical trials with “rigorous standards” according to the Federal Drug Administration. Even without the public health order in question, Presbyterian recently announced it would require all of its staff to be vaccinated. 

Talisha Valdez is a resident of Union County and the mother of two daughters who had planned on showing livestock in a 4-H competition at the state fair.