Legislators fear disclosure of spending on public works

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Trip Jennings

Trip Jennings

Some state lawmakers fear that making public how they divvy up money each year for public infrastructure projects might harm their re-election chances.

Others complain of being bullied by the media. Still others say making public what lawmakers spend on projects each year would make reporters’ jobs too easy.

It’s been an interesting session walking the hallways of the Roundhouse and hearing how state lawmakers respond when asked to make public how they each spend state dollars on public projects.

That information is currently exempted from the state’s public records law, according to the Legislative Council Service (LCS). Under the current system, in order for New Mexicans to know which lawmakers funded projects in their districts, those lawmakers must each give permission to LCS to share the information.

It is NMID’s belief the public needs to know how officials spend public money — and the dollars legislators earmark for projects each year is public money — in order for the public to do its job of keeping government accountable.

That is why NMID started asking state lawmakers for the information in November.

So far, 25 of New Mexico’s 111 state lawmakers have responded by sharing how they divvied up money for projects in the years from 2010 through 2015, including Republican Speaker of the House Don Tripp and Democratic House Minority Leader Brian Egolf. NMID has incorporated those allocations into a publicly accessible database for anyone to see.

While some House legislative leaders have gone public, their counterparts in the Senate haven’t been as forthcoming. No Senator in a leadership position has shared their information. And it almost has seemed like a game to them.

“Tell me when Sen. Ingle gives his to you,” Sen. Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, Democrat of Belen, said Monday of Sen. Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, Republican of Portales.

“I’ll get it to you before the session is over,” Ingle said when asked by NMID. “I promise.”

How it started

NMID began looking into capital outlay in 2015 after reporting that New Mexico’s system of giving legislators the ability to fund mostly brick-and-mortar projects is unique among U.S. states, according to scholars who study the issue.

One scholar has gone so far as to describe it as an “illustration about how not to do capital improvement planning.”

Year after year, hundreds of millions of New Mexico’s taxpayer dollars have sat idle, stark illustration of an inefficient system with lax oversight that earmarks dollars for both non-shovel ready projects and partially funding shovel-ready ones. Individual state lawmakers have greenlighted many of those projects, doling out earmarks reserving funds they have complete control over. The only check on that power is the governor’s exercise of line-item veto power within the annual capital outlay bills.

But neither the public nor the media can tell how each lawmaker directs money toward projects each year.

Which is why NMID began asking lawmakers in November to give permission to legislative staff to share the information. We did that  after the Legislative Council Service cited legislative privilege in refusing to release specific amounts allocated by specific lawmakers.

We were told we had to ask lawmakers for permission before legislative staff could share the information. So that’s what we did. We crafted an e-mail to legislators in November asking them to tell the legislative agency to share the information with New Mexico In Depth. I even wrote a column after a day of silence.

The title — “No surprise NM public officials prefer secrecy over transparency” – and its tone apparently ruffled lawmakers.

More than a few legislators have grumbled during the session and communicated annoyance and anger at feeling bullied.

Some have been very adamant about not turning over the information.

“You guys in the media can make up whatever you want,” Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, told NMID when he was asked to share publicly what he spends on projects each year. “You’re suggesting I’m doing something illegal and I’m not.”

His Rio Rancho colleague, Republican Rep. Jason Harper, meanwhile, said he didn’t appreciate feeling bullied. When asked if this was the reason he wouldn’t make public how he spends money on projects each year, Harper didn’t answer.

“My people know what I give to them,” House Majority Whip Alonzo Baldonado, Republican of Albuquerque, said, citing a common refrain among lawmakers.

Republican Rep. Tim Lewis of Rio Rancho made the same comment.

Democratic senators Daniel Ivey-Soto and John Sapien, meanwhile, refused to share the information despite repeated requests.

While many lawmakers NMID said openly why they wouldn’t share the information, one lawmaker declined to speak on the record and would talk only if he remained unnamed. He said he came from a mixed legislative district where Republicans and Democrats are nearly equally represented and felt he would put a bullseye on his back come election time if it were revealed publicly how he spent money on projects.

Democratic Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants is a different sort of case.

During a committee hearing earlier in the session, Sanchez suggested the media was not doing its job and it would make reporters’ jobs too easy if lawmakers made what they spent on projects available for public review.

“I know the press got on this and maybe they’re just a little lazy. It’s not rocket science,” Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, said.

Following his remarks, NMID attempted to discover what Clemente Sanchez and Sen. Michael Sanchez spent on projects in 2013, when each state senator could allocate $1.19 million to projects of their choosing, for a total of nearly $50 million for all 42 members of the chamber.

We even wrote a story about it.

The result?

NMID found it couldn’t determine the amounts earmarked for each project by the two senators due to quirks in how New Mexico state lawmakers fund certain projects. A person can see what a lawmaker spends on a single project if he or she is the only legislator to earmark money for it. But it is impossible to tell how much each lawmaker spends on a project if that project receives money from multiple legislators. That’s a common practice among New Mexico lawmakers — to band together to help fund a project.

On Tuesday, Clemente Sanchez said he’d think about giving NMID the information.

Meanwhile, two pieces of legislation sponsored by Sen. Sander Rue, R- Albuquerque, that would make such spending available for public inspection appear to be dead with a day to go in the 30-day session. They are stuck in the Senate with few prospects for success, Rue said Tuesday.

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