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.