By Greg Nibert
Our representative form of government is based upon the principle of checks and balances among three separate branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. The people have granted specific and separate duties to each branch under our Constitution. By design no one branch is supposed to usurp the role of another branch — this concept is known as separation of powers. Equally important, each branch has an obligation to ensure its constitutional authority is preserved and faithfully executed to maintain this separation of powers. Failure to do so allows one to become more powerful, upsetting the balance. A lack of balance will ultimately weaken the foundation of our representative government and increase the likelihood of a constitutional crisis.
Unfortunately, our state may be on the verge of such a constitutional “moment” in regard to the governor’s recent expenditure of $30-plus million out of the State Treasury not appropriated by the Legislature. Under our Constitution, the Legislature has the sole authority to provide for the expenditure of money from the State Treasury. The Legislature granted the executive limited authorization of expenses during an emergency to $750,000. Expenditures over that limit must go through the legislative process.
Appropriation of money is central to the functioning of the Legislature and in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities. I have urged my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to take action and protect legislative authority. We can no longer rely on the governor to call a special session to deal with the emergency orders. Having a seat at the table in dealing with the protracted state of emergency and authorizing the expenditure of public money is constitutionally necessary for us, as legislators, to meet our obligations to the citizens of this state.
In response to pleas for further action, the Legislative Council (a panel consisting of House and Senate leadership) approved in early July a bipartisan investigation to determine whether our governor violated the $750,000 limitation and usurped the Legislature’s constitutional authority. The investigation was also to address what steps the Legislature should take to restore the constitutional balance of power and holding the governor accountable. As part of this investigation, the Legislative Council’s co-chairs sent a letter to the governor requesting clarification as to why she exceeded the $750,000 limit.
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Sadly, the governor’s response made no serious effort to justify her actions as it stated the investigation was a “pedantic matter.” This is a direct affront to the entire Legislature, and to the people we represent. The governor’s response is not surprising as she has been acting as if she is accountable to no one.
Unfortunately, progressives in the House echoed the governor’s mantra that the entire matter is trivial, claiming the governor was justified in exceeding her constitutional authority due to the pandemic. Yet, adherence to our Constitution is not dependent on circumstances; no individual or governmental entity has the power to ignore its provisions and to do so sets a dangerous precedent.
The speaker now claims the investigation was an effort to score political points. Yet, it is the speaker and his party’s House leadership who are playing politics by doing everything they can to prevent the investigation from being finalized and reported and then acted upon.
The Legislature should quickly conclude the investigation, take all necessary action to ensure accountability and weigh in on the direction the state will take in handling the pandemic. It is the Legislature that holds the “power of the purse” and it’s the people’s representatives who should engage in that debate. The future of representative government demands it.
State Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, represents District 59 in the New Mexico House of Representatives. The views expressed are those of the author.