By Phaedra Haywood originally published in the Santa Fe New Mexican on September 20th, 2021

Two state senators have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asking the New Mexico Supreme Court to bar her from spending federal pandemic aid without legislative approval. 

“This case presents a constitutional emergency of generational importance,” Sens. Jacob Candelaria D-Albuquerque, and Greg Baca R-Belen, say in a complaint filed Friday.

The lawsuit alleges the governor already has violated the state constitution by appropriating $600 million of the $1.73 billion in American Recovery Plan Act funds received by the state without legislative approval and says the court must act to prevent further unauthorized spending of the remaining $1.08 billion. The $600 million was used to replenish the state’s Unemployment Trust Fund.

The money comes from a $1.9 trillion federal economic stimulus bill passed in March to help the U.S. recover from the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in what has been an ongoing struggle between lawmakers and the governor over which branch of state government has the authority to allocate federal funds.

The Legislature passed a bill during its regular session earlier this year calling for the money to be deposited in an “Appropriation Contingency Fund” and earmarking about $660.5 million for various purposes, including the stabilization of unemployment funds, the lawsuit says. 

But Lujan Grisham vetoed that portion of the bill. She wrote in her veto message “the Legislature lacks the authority to direct the executive’s administration of federal funds.”

The senators say in their lawsuit the state constitution requires the executive branch to obtain legislative approval to spend any money held in the state’s treasury, with the exception of making payments on public debt. 

Candelaria was the sole Democrat to join Republican lawmakers in an unsuccessful push to convene an extraordinary session on the issue earlier this year. 

“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 a news release Monday. “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.”

The lawsuit asks the Supreme Court to issue a stay prohibiting the governor, State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg and any other state officials from spending any of the federal recovery money while the petition is pending and to issue a writ prohibiting funds from being spent without legislative approval going forward. 

The Governor’s Office did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment on the lawsuit Monday. 

This is a developing story. Check back for more details.