Capital outlay reform transformed by Senate into three-year interim study

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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.

Bill sponsor Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, reassured lawmakers that they’ll still be able to select their own projects to fund when severance tax bond money is available.

“It does not in any way interfere with an individual members role in capital outlay,” Cervantes said.

New Mexico is the only state in the nation that allows individual lawmakers to allocate infrastructure money without a vetting or ranking process. In some years, that amounts to up to $1 million per state senator.

This year, no lawmaker projects will be funded, because only about $60 million is available and only state agency projects are included.

Despite, Cervantes’ reassurances, several lawmakers opposed the bill, which passed 29-10.

“Often, what we’ve heard is that it’s the fault of this body and the (House),” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque.  “A lot of what’s driving the money not being spent is processing and grant agreements and bureaucratic road blocks that occur at” the Department of Finance and Administration.

A legislative staff analysis of the original bill said that of more than $970 million in unspent infrastructure funding, some $209 million was from projects earmarked by lawmakers.

Others took offense at a 2016 Think New Mexico report that criticized the annual capital outlay bill.

“They referred to our process as the Christmas Tree Bill,” said Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque. “I took that personally.”

Others expressed concern about urban-rural differences that are addressed by allowing lawmaker earmarks. Rural lawmakers often fund road and water projects, while urban lawmakers tend to fund school, athletic and cultural projects.

Candelaria, one of two Democrats voting against the measure, was among those concerned about those differences.

“I hope the representation of this committee includes all geographic areas, including Albuquerque,” he said.

Think New Mexico in 2016 proposed an independent committee to vet and recommend projects. A spokeswoman for the independent think tank said in an email that the group supports the 18-member legislative study committee.

“We agree with Senator Cervantes that there is an urgent need to move money off the sidelines and into the economy,” wrote Kristina Fisher, associate director. “Senate Bill 262 takes an important first step towards reform by creating a process to critically evaluate the way New Mexico funds infrastructure projects. We hope the House will make it a top priority.”

But House sponsor Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, said she feared the measure won’t be fast-tracked in time to become law.

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