Capital outlay study committee proposal advances

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An interim committee to study New Mexico’s infrastructure funding is headed to the House floor after a 7-6 vote Monday.

Republicans on the Taxation and Revenue Committee voted against House Joint Memorial 4 sponsored by Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, while Democrats voted for it. The committee would incorporate staff from the state auditor’s office, and one Republican suggested including Department of Finance and Administration staff as well.

The state’s overall infrastructure spending is divided among numerous agencies and committees. And each legislative session, lawmakers get to divvy up capital outlay money for projects in their district.

Differences between urban and rural needs when it comes to infrastructure were emphasized by both proponents and opponents of Ely’s suggestion.

“We do have to have an interim committee to look at this issue because one size doesn’t fit all,” Ely said.

He cited a reform proposal that would set criteria for capital outlay projects and create a legislative committee to prioritize projects. Senate Bill 262 would end the practice of individual lawmakers funding numerous, often small, projects.

But Ely said that measure might disqualify projects in urban districts such as his.

“We have capital outlay projects that while necessary do not impact public safety and health,” he said, citing one of the criteria in the Senate bill.

Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, said lawmakers in San Juan County collaborate with each other to fund large projects. That isn’t always necessary in urban districts that are smaller in size. He noted the rarity of New Mexico’s system of allowing each lawmaker money to distribute.

“We’re the only state that does this,” Strickler said. “It’s a real awkward system, where you have a little allocation for each member.”

Strickler and other Republicans suggested the permanent Revenue Stabilization and Tax Policy Committee examine the system, in which hundreds of millions of dollars remain unspent.

And Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, said a new committee should offer specific recommendations, with specific outcomes and a timeline.

Ely said he agreed that there should be clear goals for the committee, but he said a distinct committee is needed to address the issue.

“The idea of the interim committee is to set up a committee to ask where’s the money,” he said. “Is there just money sitting around? Is there a wiser way of using our public dollars?”

But Fred Nathan, executive director of Think New Mexico, which is advocating for an entirely new system, said there have been plenty of capital outlay studies.

“We are aware of at least sixteen studies and reports about New Mexico’s broken capital outlay system,” Nathan wrote in an email. “It is clear that the reform needed is a transparent and merit-based system for selecting projects. SB 262 does that through the creation of an interim legislative committee that will use objective criteria to prioritize projects. That will get money off the sidelines and create jobs. What is needed is not more studies, but the political will to implement the needed reforms.”

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