Seven NM lawmakers provide capital outlay allocations

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Only seven of New Mexico’s 112 state lawmakers so far have agreed to publicly share their allocations for brick-and-mortar projects.

They are: Republican House members Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo, Zach Cook of Ruidoso, Larry Scott of Hobbs; Republican Sen. Sander Rue of Albuquerque (Republican House members Jim Dines and Dennis Roch were the first to agree to share the information); and Sen. Bill Soules, Democrat of Las Cruces.

Here’s a link if you want to download the information in the spreadsheet.

It’s been two weeks since New Mexico In Depth asked all current lawmakers to share that information publicly. And it’s been interesting to read my inbox. A handful of lawmakers who haven’t consented to share capital outlay allocations have e-mailed to tell me why.

Republican Rep. Tim Lewis of Rio Rancho was one. In his e-mail, Lewis wrote that he shares his capital outlay allocations with the Rio Rancho Observer newspaper each year.

“It’s not a secret that I give specifically to Rio Rancho and it’s (sic) interests so I don’t think its (sic) necessary for the entire state to know the details,” Lewis wrote in his e-mail.

Beyond that, “if a constituent of mine wanted to know what my capital outlay was since 2010, the year I was elected, then I’d be happy to meet with them for coffee anywhere in Rio Rancho,” Lewis wrote. “I’d be happy to tell them what I’ve given to and why.”

Lewis’ approach sounds appropriate if, say, we lived in 1989. It reminds me of my pre-Internet reporting days when we journalists had to go to a governmental office, request documents, look over them and take notes or make copies.

Actually, it doesn’t. It’s like going to the office, asking to see the documents and an official telling me to just trust him that the documents say what he’s telling me.

In 2015, there are easier ways to share how public money is spent – like posting it all to the Internet in a searchable format and giving the user the option of downloading the information. Now that strikes me as an appropriate use of 21st-century technology. (The Secretary of State’s website still does not do this for campaign finance records in 2015, so who am I to expect the Legislature to get it right?)

As for meeting over a cup of coffee to talk capital outlay, Lewis has put the burden on constituents instead of being proactively transparent.

Another lawmaker who shared capital outlay allocations with NMID appeared upset about the column I wrote last week.

“I have nothing to hide,” the lawmaker wrote.

The tone of my column was pointed, I’ll admit. But year after year I am reminded of how secretive the political culture here is in New Mexico.

Whether it’s the lax campaign finance reporting requirements, or that lobbyists don’t have to report what bills or issues they’re working – or what their employers pay them — or that decisions to fund capital outlay projects are made behind closed doors.

That the public must first seek permission from individual state lawmakers to see their capital allocations as the Legislative Council Service is requiring NMID — and the public — to do is symbolic of a much larger issue. It’s as if the Legislature doesn’t want the public meddling in the public’s business.

Let me explain a little bit about New Mexico’s capital outlay process and why NMID is seeking individual lawmakers’ allocations.

During a legislative session, each lawmaker files bills requesting dollars for capital outlay projects. Sometimes the list, depending on the lawmaker, might include dozens of projects. The potential cost of this wish list might soar into the millions of dollars. But, remember, it’s a wish list.

Toward the end of the legislative session, leaders decide how much each lawmaker in the House and Senate can allocate for capital outlay based on revenue coming in. In 2015, it was $600,000 for each member of the House of Representatives and $1 million for each state Senator.  For a state lawmaker with millions of dollars in requests, he or she then must decide where and how to divvy up that $600,000 or $1 million.

In a state capitol, information is power and making information public is a form of giving away control. Freeing up information like this to the public increases the chances that constituents — and the public — might question their decisions more than they already do.

Moreover, some lawmakers fear that by releasing the information their decisions will come back to haunt them come election time.

So, as with so much else, the Legislature adopts a stance of “just trust us” with the public — and the media concerning allocations of public outlay dollars.

But it is NMID’s position that in a democracy an informed, engaged citizenry deserves to see how public money is spent, including state lawmakers’ allocations for brick-and-mortar projects. And to have to seek permission from individual state lawmakers violates the spirit of that value.

This is why we at NMID want to see the lawmakers’ allocations for ourselves. And why our organization will keep a running tally of lawmakers who agree to share their allocations up to and through the 2016 legislative session.

We’re not going away.

 

8 thoughts on “Seven NM lawmakers provide capital outlay allocations

  1. Excellent reporting for so many reasons!

    It creates movement towards a better government.

    It educates the public about the process and how our tax dollars are spent.

    It provides a snapshot of how committed each of our legislators are to an open and transparent government.

    It provides easy access of what projects are important to our legislator in our districts. This is
    good to know when we vote.

    It can be utilized as promotional material for campaigns for re-election to educate the citizens re:
    what was important to them and why. Wouldn’t you rather see this information in your mailbox rather than the attack ads?

    One suggestion would be to include the link to the specific project so one could further investigate how the money is spent. This would also encourage the citizen to actually see the physical result. For
    example, It was good to see that Jim Dines had dedicated $15,000 for the ALB LOMAS TRAMWAY LIBRARY COURTYARD IMPROVE. The link would be able to take us to the specific plan and how that courtyard will be improved. Then when we went to that library, the direct effect of our taxpayer dollars can be seen. This brings it full circle from the taxpayer to how our tax dollars were actually spent.

    Please continue to provide more reporting like this.

    • At some point, we likely will be providing such links to a fuller description from the bill. Now, for projects from 2010-14, you can go to this site: http://nmcapproj.herokuapp.com/ But we haven’t loaded 2015 projects there yet – will likely do that after the first of the year when we update the data.

    • Those are the projects lawmakers originally requested. What actually ends up in the final capital outlay bill as designated by individual lawmakers is not made public. And the money available each year couldn’t possibly fund all the projects listed in those draft proposals by individual lawmakers.

      • Thank you for the reply Sandra. So another question, and I am not trying to be pesky, just trying to be informed and appreciate your help! The final capital outlay bill is also available online. And I am guessing if someone is wondering who funded a project that is included in the final capital outlay bill — they could probably look it up by County and see if it was on the request list of the person who represents that area. Or someone could always look on a representative’s outlay request list and then look at the bill to see if it is in there. On the legislative website there are also lists of capital outlay projects by county. But is the point that people shouldn’t have to do that much research to find out? Because it seems to me the information is all out there, just takes some work to find it. Please enlighten me, I am just trying to understand, thank you!

        • That’s a good question, Jacque. Often, projects aren’t funded fully in the capital outlay bill as shown in those individual bills. But more importantly, multiple lawmakers may collaborate to fund a project and there’s no way to know how much each lawmaker put in. And I suspect it’s possible for a lawmaker to put money into a project that wasn’t in their original bill.

          Also, legislative staff has made it clear in the past that just because something is in someone’s individual capital outlay bill, it doesn’t mean that lawmaker provided the funding for it. Many projects are included by multiple lawmakers, and only a couple might end up funding it.

          The point IS that people shouldn’t have to go to such lengths to figure out how individual lawmakers are funding projects. I’ve been reporting on this topic for a year, and I still don’t have a handle on HOW they decide which projects end up in the bill. Because the negotiations on how much money is available for state projects, how much for lawmaker projects and which projects from lawmakers are included is all done in behind closed doors.

          Let me know if you have other questions!

  2. The Capital Outlay process utilized by New Mexico is unique among the 50 states. Most States use some form of capital outlay commission comprised of legislative, executive, and professional State employee appointees to gather and rank projects on a Statewide basis. The rub here is that this takes individual legislator discretion away and brings up the issue of “fair share”.

    Although reform legislation has been put forth and contemplated by the legislature in the past, none of these efforts have managed to make it past initial consideration. Given that resources are getting much scarcer with the downturn in the oil and gas industry it is probably time to revisit the issue again.

    It will be very difficult to ensure that an appointed commission will be non-partisan. That said, if the process is transparent and fully accountable to the voter, I would be strongly in favor of reform measures that would bring a more business like approach to this process.

    Larry R. Scott
    State Representative/House District 62

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