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Mar 24, 2017

New Mexico Capital Spending Battle to Continue

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NEW MEXICO CAPITAL SPENDING BATTLE TO CONTINUE

Senator Joseph Cervantes says he is going to try again.

A bill he sponsored in this year’s legislative session that would have gone far towards reforming New Mexico’s controversial capital outlay process made it all the way through the Senate Finance Committee on the way to the House.

But there it died for lack of action.

“I’ll bring it up again,” says Cervantes, whose district includes Las Cruces.

“Right now, New Mexico has been recognized as the state with the highest unemployment rate in the country, so our first goal should be to put New Mexicans to work,” he says.

“When you have a billion dollars of available funding for capital projects, that means there is a great deal of money that can go into local communities and put people to work.”

Cervantes’ original proposal was both simple and historic: it would have changed the way the legislature decides on capital outlay projects across the state, creating a planning commission to independently review and prioritize capital outlay projects.

In so doing, it would have replaced a system that has been criticized as being too inefficient, political, and, in some cases, bizarre: for the current year, some $969 million has been appropriated for various projects, but never used.

The current process has won the ire of both Democrat and Republican lawmakers, as well as such groups as Think New Mexico, a Santa Fe-based think tank.

Last year, Fred Nathan, the executive director of that think tank, said that a reformed prioritization process would not only do away with such ephemeral projects as sculpture gardens and kitchen equipment for senior citizen centers, but would also eliminate the prospect of funds going unspent.

Such a process, thought Nathan, would create predictability, and “consequently builders will have some time to plan ahead and hire personnel.”

One of the most steadfast critics of the capital outlay process has been Governor Susana Martinez, who last year vetoed $19 million in funding for a variety of projects across the state, noting, “It is frustrating and disappointing to watch how the legislature squanders critical infrastructure funding—choosing to spend money on local pork barrel projects that often do not create jobs or develop the economy.”

Martinez additionally charged that some lawmakers “concealed their individual appropriation decisions from the public [and] slipped unapproved and un-vetted projects into the capital bills.” 

Martinez’s scathing critique of New Mexico’s capital outlay procedures followed on the heels of her predecessor, Governor Bill Richardson, who also attacked the system as cumbersome and wasteful.

As Cervantes’ bill was making its way through the Senate this winter, the Albuquerque Journal lauded his effort, remarking: “Because no single legislator is able to fully fund a large project, such as expanding a water system or rebuilding an interchange, he or she often appropriates a portion of the funding in hopes of eventually finishing it with future funding.”

In an editorial for the New Mexico Political Report, Senator Pete Campos, whose district includes Las Vegas, said that having projects that are not fully funded “ties up millions of state tax dollars while other funding is sought.”

In addition, wrote Campos, the selection of projects that are not “eligible, ready, or desired,” has had the effect of “wasting time as bonding capacity is left unused for another year.”

But not all lawmakers all entirely enthused with doing away with the system as it is.

“My biggest fear is that getting rid of it would take away any hopes or ability we may have to bring needed capital outlay money to the smaller districts,” says Senator Cliff Pirtle of Roswell.

While acknowledging that certain funded projects do indeed never get off the ground, Pirtle also points out that “if you look at the smaller cities and towns, they are the ones that are most in need of things like water projects.”

“We are not talking about baseball parks or things like that,” continues Pirtle. “We’re talking about real infrastructure needs like streets, water pipelines and sewerage lines.”

Pirtle says that he and his fellow regional legislators have tried to reduce the prospect of funding projects that aren’t going to be built by “getting together on a regular basis and agreeing on funding the large projects within our respective areas.”

But the idea of setting up an official planning committee to sift through projects and prioritize them, says Pirtle, “could in the end add more cost to the process.”

Cervantes says the chance of the legislature revisiting capital outlay reform in an upcoming special session is minimal.

But he adds that he is not giving up on the issue. “This is something that sooner or later we have to address,” says Cervantes. “It’s a huge problem that is not going to go away.”

 

By Garry Boulard

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