Thanks to some transparency about how the Governor’s Office spends discretionary funds, we recently learned Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham used taxpayer money to buy almost $13,500 of goods and services over a six-month period in 2020. If we hadn’t been under a travel quarantine and a five-person limit on gatherings, that would have made sense – under normal conditions the governor entertains folks interested in investing in New Mexico.
In fact $13,500 would be a bargain.
But we were in the midst of a pandemic. And as tens of thousands of New Mexicans were denied not only holiday get-togethers but funerals, as they struggled to sign up for unemployment, their tax dollars were being used for tuna steaks, Wagyu beef, liquor and dry cleaning. A governor’s spokesman says some of the $6,500-plus grocery bill fed the governor’s Cabinet and staff at long meetings during the second half of 2020.
And that begs the question, instead of purchasing high-end gourmet food, why not feed those attendees by supporting our struggling local restaurants that had curbside service?
According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, one of the receipts showed the Governor’s Office spent more than $200 during one trip in September to Sam’s Club, buying at least five bottles of tequila, two bottles of vodka, two bottles of merlot, a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of gin. Spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said the liquor was bought by a staffer for a holiday party that never took place and so it was never opened.
September seems awfully early to be buying beverages for a Thanksgiving or Christmas party.
Add these purchases to the tone-deaf pay raises for eight members of the governor’s inner circle last year that ranged from 8% to 21%, including a $19,000 raise for her communications director.
The silver lining to this story is that we know about the expenses, thanks to a bill that took effect in 2019 that changed the way the governor’s taxpayer-funded expense account is distributed and overseen. The change was in response to “Pizzagate,” when former Gov. Susana Martinez used discretionary funds to throw a raucous holiday party at a Santa Fe hotel and spa that drew police after bottles were reportedly tossed over a balcony.
The state Legislature appropriates money for each governor to spend on functions, events or items that promote the state. And again, $13,000 in six months is a small number compared to most years. But ordering gourmet grub and gallons of booze while tens of thousands of New Mexicans were unemployed was simply arrogant and out of touch. Doing it with tax funds while the state’s unemployment coffers were emptied was just plain wrong.
It’s a self-inflicted wound to a reputation one wouldn’t expect from a career public servant, former county commissioner, state Cabinet secretary and member of Congress – especially in a year in which this pandemic has killed more than 3,600 New Mexicans, put 140,000 others out of work and greatly stressed essential workers.
Over the past 11 months, the governor has held lengthy news conferences on a regular basis to provide updates, urge New Mexicans to follow safety protocols and thank them for making sacrifices as we all battle this deadly enemy. She often says “we are all in this together.”
But that’s a hard message to sell when she is enjoying taxpayer-purchased Japanese beef and classic Canadian whisky while many New Mexicans are just trying to keep their families fed.