I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
State lawmakers near decision on whether to sue the governor
State lawmakers are nearing a decision on whether they will drag Gov. Bill Richardson into court over what some interpret as his constitutional power grab last month. In November, the governor vetoed language in a Legislature-approved budget bill that called for state agency cuts, then issued an executive order requiring less drastic cost-saving measures.
A behind-closed-doors discussion last week by the Legislature’s budget committee didn’t produce a consensus, but it focused lawmakers on their options, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said this week.
“Hopefully by the early part of next week we will have a consensus,” about what to do, Smith said.
Whether the Legislature sues the governor or not might sound arcane, but at issue is the power to appropriate money, and who gets to wield it, at a time when New Mexico is confronting the worst financial situation in decades.
While some lawmakers might have qualms about dragging the state’s chief executive into court, Smith doesn’t. He sounded as if he were spoiling for a fight.
“We need to draw the line in the sand and say ‘You’ve overstepped your authority,’” said Smith, the vice chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee who often has clashed with Richardson over money matters.
“Even if the administration prevails, we’ve set a precedent,” Smith said.
The governor’s office did not respond to an e-mail and phone call from the Independent seeking a response, but a Richardson spokesman last month charged lawmakers, not the governor, with acting unconstitutionally.
“The truth is that it was the Legislature — not the governor — that was overstepping its constitutional bounds,” the Albuquerque Journal quoted Gilbert Gallegos as saying.
At issue are two actions by the governor last month, when he acted on a budget bill the Legislature had passed during a special session in October to address this year’s $650 million budgetary shortfall.
Richardson vetoed a provision in the budget legislation that required cuts to state agencies; then he issued an executive order requiring a different set of budget cuts.
The cuts ordered by Richardson in the executive order varied in severity, department to department, depending on a mix of factors, including how they might affect public safety, education or health care.
What concerns certain state lawmakers is that – to their minds –Richardson may have usurped the Legislature’s constitutional responsibility to appropriate money at specific levels.
The executive order, in essence, changed how much each agency could spend this year, lawmakers say.
State lawmakers are relying on two Supreme Court rulings, one from 1995 and the other from 1961, as a hook for their potential challenge, according to interviews.
The 1995 ruling, Schwartz v. Johnson, found unconstitutional former Gov. Gary Johnson’s unilateral decision to regulate monthly cash allotments to state agencies without legislative approval. The allotments represent what each agency gets in funding.
In essence, the court found that Johnson had appropriated money, which is constitutionally reserved for the Legislature.
Some lawmakers believe Richardson’s action last month was similar to what Johnson did 14 years ago, and should be struck down as unconstitutional.
In addition, even if Richardson had gotten the Legislature to sign off on his executive order, lawmakers would have had to given the governor “reasonable standards” for that spending. That didn’t occur, lawmakers say. That’s where the second case, Holmes v. State Board of Finance, comes into play, which required reasonable standards to be given.
For Smith, Richardson’s action goes to the heart of separation of powers, the constitutional concept that each branch – the executive (governor), the legislative and the judiciary (the courts) – is invested with authority over certain functions of government.
For example, the legislative appropriates money, while the executive administers it.
“The chief executive is not concerned about separation of powers, he’s concerned about consolidating power,” Smith said.