By Daniel J Chacón, originally published in the SF New Mexican

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday in a long-running dispute with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle over which branch of government has the authority to appropriate federal funds.

The high court sided unanimously with senators who opposed Lujan Grisham making decisions on how to spend about $1.6 billion in federal pandemic aid without input from the Legislature.

“The Constitution won today,” state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, wrote in a text message after the ruling.

“Big decisions about state policy, and especially decisions about how to spend billions in public money, must be made in the light of day through the legislative process. These sort of decisions shall never be made by a governor acting alone behind closed doors,” he added.

Candelaria joined Republican Sen. Greg Baca of Belen in filing a lawsuit against the governor in September, contending she was overstepping her authority.

The senators also had asked the Supreme Court to order Lujan Grisham to halt spending of federal pandemic aid while their lawsuit was pending. The court denied that request last month.

However, after justices listened to arguments for two hours in the case, they issued a brief ruling from the bench ordering a freeze on federal pandemic aid spending until the Legislature makes appropriations.

“The court grants standing to the petitioners on the basis of great public importance,” Chief Justice Michael Vigil said, according to KRQE-TV. “The court will order a writ of prohibition and mandamus, prohibiting the governor and the state treasurer and all other state officials subject to their accord from transferring, encumbering, committing, expending or appropriating any additional funds out of the state ARPA [American Relief Plan Act] account in the state treasury, absent of appropriation.”

Lawmakers plan to add the federal pandemic relief money into budget appropriations in the upcoming 30-day legislative session, which begins in January.

State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg sided with Candelaria and Baca last month in a written response ordered by the court, asserting through an attorney the expenditure of COVID-19 relief funds requires legislative appropriation. In a legal brief filed earlier this month, four long-serving Democratic senators who chair some of the most influential committees in the Legislature also joined in the effort to rein in the governor’s spending powers.

Candelaria told justices in court Wednesday the federal funds “can be appropriated in either a transparent, public and legislative appropriations process … or they can be appropriated in a closed-door process in which only the governor may determine unilaterally how to appropriate these funds without the need for, or the inconvenience, of public debate, committee hearings or bargaining majorities in the House and Senate.”

The high court’s decision came during a news conference Wednesday in the Roundhouse on the appointment of new advisers in the governor’s administration. Lujan Grisham told reporters she would seek guidance in the wake of the decision, and that she and lawmakers now must work together to determine how best to use the funds as quickly as possible.

“We need to get this money out,” the governor said.

“I’m trying to leverage every dollar,” she said. “That’s what we should do here. We should leverage it all to get the biggest bang for our buck.”

She said she will discuss with lawmakers how to spend the federal money so it can be made available to those who are overseeing infrastructure improvements.

“I don’t know exactly what that looks like,” she said. “We’re going to have to figure that out together.”

Baca lauded the high court’s decision.

“In one of the most significant rulings in decades, the New Mexico Supreme Court today preserved the appropriating authority of the legislature and affirmed the separation and balance of powers enshrined in our Constitution,” he said in a statement. “… The Governor’s attempts to assume unilateral control of our state by bucking the authority of her office and the state constitution are an egregious power grab, and we are thankful that the high court has ruled in favor of the people.”

The case before the Supreme Court “was a litmus test on whether this state will continue to kowtow to and allow one politician to make decisions without the voice of the people,” House Republican Minority Leader Jim Townsend of Artesia said in a statement.

“It is interesting that even the Governor’s judicial appointees have decided in favor of the people’s voice, not to mention the five Senators that bucked the inaction by their party leadership to fight for the people,” Townsend said.

“It saddens me that our colleagues in the House of Representatives failed to stand up for the voice of the people,” he added, “but it is our hope that this puts them and the Governor on notice that we will not be silenced when it comes to representing the people of New Mexico.”