Capital outlay transparency bill passes first test

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A Senate committee on Monday became the first legislative panel of the 30-day session to support making public how much each lawmaker spends on individual capital outlay projects.

The Senate Rules Committee approved Sen. Sander Rue’s Senate Bill 48 with at least one no vote. The committee amended the bill to make it effective for projects in the 2017 session after concerns about making the projects public the first time during an election year.

The bill next goes to the Senate Finance Committee.  In the House, Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, is proposing a bill similar to Rue’s legislation. In case his bill doesn’t pass the Legislature, Rue has proposed a resolution asking legislators in the House and Senate to support making such disclosure part of the Legislature’s rules.

NMinDepthGov. Susana Martinez encouraged the Legislature to approve the transparency bills, as well as capital outlay reform, in her state of the state speech.

Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, voted against the measure. And Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, and Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, both criticized the measure. Sen. Michael Sanchez’s vote wasn’t audible in the meeting webcast.

“I really think this all came about as a blogger wanting to get the information,” said Sen. Michael Sanchez. “This isn’t coming from the right place. You’re just saving the blogger the time of doing the work they need to do.”

But Rue said a November request from New Mexico In Depth reminded him that he’d been troubled a few years ago when he realized that lawmakers’ infrastructure wish lists were public, but the amount they provided for specific projects in the final capital outlay bill were not.

“I’m not carrying this for anybody else and I’m not trying to do the blogger’s job for them or the media’s job for them,” Rue said. “These things can be explained and they should be explained. The public has a right to know.”

NMID’s Capital Dilemma series has examined problems with the state’s capital outlay process, which is the only one in the nation that allows individual lawmakers to specify projects. About $1 billion in total capital outlay money hasn’t been spent, including $236 million unspent on 1,757 local projects designated by individual lawmaker.

After reporting that the system isn’t necessarily equitable when it comes to per capita spending by county, NMID emailed lawmakers asking them to share their allocations from 2010 through 2015. Thus far, 20 of 111 lawmakers have responded.

Representatives of the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the state auditor’s office voiced support for the measure.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez said lawmakers’ earmarks could be determined by comparing their wish lists to what ends up in the bill.

“I know the press got on this and maybe they’re just a little lazy,” he said. “It’s available out there and they can find it.”

The Legislative Council Service has repeatedly told New Mexico In Depth that it needed permission from each lawmaker before the agency could share how much he or she spends on specific projects. Those allocations are not considered public information under New Mexico law.

In addition, multiple legislators often pool money to pay for one project, meaning it’s impossible to see who put forward what amount for that project without each lawmaker giving his or her permission to make the allocations public. The cost of the project in the capital outlay bill that passes the Legislature also may not be the same as found in a lawmaker’s wish list.

Other committee members said they have no problem letting the public know which infrastructure projects they funded and at what level.

“I’m real glad that people are going to see how much of the projects I’ve been funding,” said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque. “On the flip side, you have colleagues that who go to meetings and say they funded it and they really didn’t.”

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