Wednesday, the New Mexico Supreme Court made a key ruling: any further obligations from federal American Relief Plan Act funding is frozen until the Legislature meets to make appropriations. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had begun spending the $1.75 billion federal stimulus funds this year without legislative input.
Republican State Senator Greg Baca and Democratic State Senator Jacob Candelaria filed the lawsuit against the governor in September. Democratic State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg weighed in with Baca and Candelaria last month, and four senior Democratic Senate committee chairs joined the suit earlier this month.
The Legislature will be hard pressed to obligate the funds as part of the fiscal year 2023 budget as this coming year’s session is a truncated 30-day session. Also, more roadblocks loom: the governor may veto any item in the budget, or the entire thing.
Moreover, there is nearly $4 billion incoming to the state in federal infrastructure stimulus that was not part of the senators’ lawsuit. No wonder the governor’s comment on the Supreme Court’s unanimous Wednesday ruling was nonchalant: “I’m not going to let it rain on my parade.”
Nearly 20 years ago, the Legislature gave key concessions to then-Gov. Bill Richardson, including the Public Health Emergency Powers Act and the line-item veto. Around the same time the Legislature also increased the amount of the annual budget the governor could program directly. Starting in 2020, the state has seen just how short-sighted these actions were.
The Legislature has watched helplessly for 20 months as the state remains under ongoing emergency orders perpetuated by the governor. I don’t necessarily have an issue with the public health orders themselves, but the unilateral nature, without the checks and balances that would come from convening the Legislature to extend them, is troublesome.
Further complicating the issue is the extreme part-time nature of our unpaid citizen Legislature. 90 days of regular sessions over a two-year period is not enough time for meaningful legislation in the modern era. And we all know that an unpaid Legislature cannot truly be representative of the citizens it represents. To serve, one must be independently wealthy, retired, or on the take from special interests.
It’s clear from the surfeit of cash pouring in from the federal government this year that the Legislature should spend some extra time in Santa Fe this year. Certainly, the budget deserves special attention. A special session should also be considered to address more basic issues: repealing the line item veto and curtailing the emergency powers granted to the governor in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Further, the Legislature should look long and hard at setting up a new state investment fund; one that would fund a paid Legislature that met for a longer period each year. Professional lawmakers are needed to bring balance to the exercise of governmental power in the state. The lack of clarity over legalized cannabis is just one example where lack of a professional Legislature has slowed down forward progress in the state.
This week’s Supreme Court ruling is a small step forward for our part-time Legislature. I am hopeful the six senators who brought the lawsuit forward will consider taking back more of their power from the fourth floor of the Roundhouse in 2022.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appears regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. A Republican, she lives amicably with her Democratic husband north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.