Governor packs $1 billion in spending into special redistricting session

Lawmakers question whether trying to allocate the money so quickly is fiscally responsible

By: - December 3, 2021 5:21 am

(Getty Images)

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is tasking legislators with agreeing on how to spend more than $1 billion of badly needed stimulus money, while also re-drawing the state’s political districts, in time for the winter holidays.

The governor made the announcement Thursday morning as part of her proclamation calling to order a special session of the Legislature for once-a-decade redistricting. Redistricting is a time-consuming and often controversial process that will set the stage for political elections for at least the next decade here. 

Legislators will begin hearings on redistricting Monday at noon at the Roundhouse. Keep up with for coverage.

She also announced that legislators will have to allocate $1.1 billion in federal money awarded through the American Rescue Plan Act. 

State Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup), vice-chair of the Senate’s Legislative Finance Committee, said the announcement adds pressure and possible inefficiency to an already stressful process. 

“I’m sure that everybody wants me to walk in there and spend $1 billion in five days,” he said. “That’s not good fiscal responsibility.”

Muñoz said he and other legislators were expecting to divy up the federal windfall, along with record revenues generated by state taxpayers, during the regular session in January. That would have given more time to start the clock on the federal money, he said, which must be spent by a certain date after it is allocated.

Supply chain and labor shortages might also test the state’s ability to quickly use the money, Muñoz said. 

In a statement, Lujan Grisham’s spokesperson Nora Sackett said that it was “imperative” to allocate the money soon, and that there are some federal limitations on where it can be spent, making the process quicker. 

The federal money is required to be spent by Dec. 31, 2024, but only to repay costs incurred during the pandemic. That can include helping shore up lost revenue for local governments, assisting households or businesses, funding salaries of essential workers or infrastructure projects.

The Legislature was only recently assured of the right to allocate the federal money at all. Lawmakers sued the governor earlier this year after she spent some of the money without going through the Legislature. 

Lujan Grisham doled out about $700 million before the litigation commenced, on things like vaccine incentives, unemployment insurance, encouraging workers to return to work and boosting pay for farmworkers harvesting chile. 

Labor shortage leaves chile unpicked so NM boosts wages

It took an order from the New Mexico Supreme Court last month to put the money into the Legislature’s hands. 

The governor hinted in a news conference following the ruling that the Supreme Court’s ruling would mean lawmakers would have to find a way to spend the money on a tight schedule. 

“I don’t think it’s going to rain on the legislators’ parades, except that I wouldn’t go on vacation,” the governor said, according to KOB. “And I’m going to grasp that maybe your Thanksgiving, Christmas, (is) over, because it means we need to do some extra work together.”

Lawmakers already approved the bulk of the spending plan in March, anticipating the federal passage of the American Rescue Plan. But the governor vetoed parts of that plan that she said would require her to cede her authority over spending of the money. 

The plan from March will not be copy-pasted into the next week’s session, said state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas (D-Albuquerque).

“The whole process will start from scratch. We’re not going to just rubber stamp what we spent in March,” Maestas said. “I would imagine we’re going to take a closer look at it.”

Maestas said it’s not a good idea to add more than a billion in spending to the back-end of an already tight special session, but he also said the money is desperately needed. 

“Generally speaking, it’s unwise to put any other bills on our redistricting special session, because folks have limited political capital, and, you know, tensions are high,” he said. “I don’t know if we can have unity in a week with that much money. But this may be a good idea simply because our economy needs money spent now.”

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.