Capital outlay reform bill enjoys both union and business support

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That diverse support and New Mexico’s need for more jobs in a still-struggling economy were the pitches to reform New Mexico’s infrastructure funding system from Fred Nathan, executive director of nonpartisan think tank Think New Mexico.

Still, concerns from lawmakers who now control that funding postponed consideration of House Bill 307 until Wednesday.

More than a dozen employees  and lobbyists representing a variety of interests from businesses to unions spoke in support of the bill.

Supporters included five labor unions, 14 business and industry groups, as well as the free-market think tank, Rio Grande Foundation.

But lawmakers voiced concerns about taking infrastructure funding out of the direct hands of legislators, who under the current system now individually fund a certain dollar-amount of projects virtually every year.

Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Espanola, said small communities, including unincorporated areas, might be ignored by a legislative interim committee and an appointed council that would select projects based on priorities such as health and safety needs, regional diversity, “shovel readiness” and more.

“My concern is that folks in my district aren’t going to have the knowledge to be able to come forward,” she said. “They’re not going to be able to access any capital outlay monies if this bill is implemented.”

Bill sponsor Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, said the bill provides for technical assistance for smaller communities and unincorporated areas. And Nathan said the measure allows lawmakers to bring requests to the appointed council.

Nathan said the current system is leaving money unspent and jobs unfilled. At least $1 billion in infrastructure allocations is unspent, legislative analyses say. Nathan said every $100 million is worth about 2,700 jobs.

“The capital outlay system in New Mexico is broken and it’s been broken for a long time,” Nathan said. “We don’t have a long-term plan, there aren’t any priorities and that’s because there aren’t any criteria.

“We have billions of dollars in unmet needs.”

Members of the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee made several suggestions on adjustments to the bill. Committee chairman Rep. James Smith, R-Albuquerque, said they would continue debate Wednesday.

Smith and Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, also have signed on as sponsors of HB 307. The Albuquerque Journal ran an editorial on Sunday supporting reforming the system. The Journal is just one of 10 newspapers around the state in favor of reform, including the Santa Fe New Mexican and the Las Cruces Sun-News.

In calling for reform, Think New Mexico pointed out that even lawmakers have referred to severance-tax bond funded infrastructure projects that they get to designate as the “Christmas Tree bill.”

“They passed the Christmas Tree bill in 48 hours, so we can pass the fix in 10 days,” Nathan said.

The committee agreed to work on the language of the bill and continue discussion on Wednesday.

Gwyneth Doland contributed to this report.

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