New Mexico’s every-other-year legislative sessions are, by definition, short. Just over four weeks. There’s a lot of legislation to cram in, including the state budget, and this year the governor is pushing for no less than legalization of recreational cannabis and free college tuition.
But somehow, in a session in which only items pertaining to public money are allowed unless the governor indicates otherwise, shedding light on how some lawmakers spend that money has been found “not germane.” And so far, the governor hasn’t included greater government transparency among the shortlist of issues she added for debate this year, or “on the call.” Her predecessor, Gov. Susana Martinez, championed some transparency initiatives. And in both the 2016 and 2018 short sessions, legislation to disclose publicly the capital outlay funding decisions of individual lawmakers was greenlighted for debate.
This year, there are two sets of lawmakers pushing to lift the veil of secrecy about how lawmakers spend money for infrastructure projects.
In 2019, Sen. Sander Rue was one of eight Albuquerque lawmakers who provided funds for Gallup police vehicles. He ought to be able to explain why he has done that over the years to his constituents, he says, when arguing for the capital outlay transparency legislation he sponsors. Can you think of a public official who spends public money and then gets to keep the spending choices secret? That’s what New Mexico lawmakers do.
New Mexico’s lawmakers dished out $300 million dollars for infrastructure projects large and small during the 2019 legislative session. The stockpile they divvied up amounts to about a third of the $1 billion capital outlay budget signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham after the session ended.
In the wake of the 2019 legislative session, people across New Mexico are taking stock of how much Legislature-approved money to fund infrastructure will end up in their communities. There’s a lot of it–$933 million in the main capital outlay bill and an additional $60 million in “junior” spending bills drafted after lawmakers realized how flush the state is in oil money. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has until April 5th to sign legislation. Before she signs off on the infrastructure spending, called capital outlay, it’s possible she’ll use her line item veto authority to strike some of the projects. She asked state agencies to “vet” projects, according to an email sent last week to potential recipients by the Department of Finance and Administration.
As New Mexico’s 2019 legislative session draws to a close, lawmakers are poised to allocate almost a billion dollars to infrastructure projects around the state. The Senate Finance committee approved $933 million yesterday for capital projects statewide. For comparison, just a year ago capital outlay money totaled $364.5 million. The state is so flush with cash, that each chamber is moving an additional “junior” appropriation bill of about $30 million, HB 548 and SB 536, for $60 million total that individual members will parcel out. The bill, SB 280, holds $385 million going to statewide projects designated by state agencies.
The House made quick work last week passing a measure that would lift a veil of secrecy on how individual lawmakers allocate capital infrastructure money under their control. Currently, New Mexico is the only state in the nation that allows legislators to divvy up among themselves a big chunk of infrastructure money to direct to projects as they see fit. And it allows them to keep secret which projects they choose to fund, although the information is readily available in an existing database. Sen. Sander Rue discusses capital outlay transparency with the Senate Rules committee in 2018, during which rural legislators explained their reservations about the measure. Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, called it the “super-secret private list which is the one that actually appropriates the money” last year during a Senate Rules Committee debate on the issue.
The New Mexico Senate on Thursday approved a watered-down measure to investigate why nearly $1 billion in infrastructure money remains unspent. Senate Bill 262 next moves to the House with less than two days to go in the 2017 legislative session. The committee in the original bill would have vetted projects that are placed in most annual capital outlay bills by individual lawmakers. But a Senate Finance Committee amendment took away that authority. And a floor amendment restricted the committee to a three-year term.
There won’t be any local road repairs, senior center vehicles or shade structures at schools coming from New Mexico lawmakers this year. There’s simply not enough money to sell more than about $63 million in severance tax bonds this year because of the decline in oil and gas revenue nationwide. That’s according to the sponsor of the annual capital outlay bill, Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa. “It would be a frivolous attempt for us to try to distribute that among 112 members,” Cisneros said. “If anything, right now we’re looking at using it for statewide needs.”
And the amount available won’t go far on statewide requests, which total $359 million.
With business and union lobbyists backing it, a bill aimed at reforming the Legislature’s allocation of infrastructure money passed the Senate Rules Committee on Friday. After a 4-2 vote, Senate Bill 262 next goes to the Senate Finance Committee. Two Republicans, Sens. Cliff Pirtle, of Roswell, and Mark Moores, of Albuquerque, opposed the measure. The bill creates a public works interim committee comprised of 18 lawmakers to recommend projects to be funded in the follow legislative session.
Memorials to honor veterans, Bernalillo County public safety officers and gun violence victims.
“Shade structures” at schools and parks. Improvements for tracks, baseball fields, and basketball and tennis courts and baseball fields. Those are some of the “infrastructure” projects lawmakers funded by divvying up capital outlay money in 2016. Meanwhile, a state-owned reintegration center for troubled young people in Eagle Nest requested $673,400 last year for renovations. Photos show sagging floors, torn carpet, broken appliances and other issues.
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.