Another year, another set of pork projects for lawmakers

Capital outlay package advances, reform efforts stalled

Stock The ROUNDHOUSE - NM Legislature

SANTA FE (KRQE) – On its surface, this year’s $123 million package of severance tax bond projects looks like a much needed boost to the state’s infrastructure woes.

But look closer and it’s easy to see the same problems some in and outside of the Roundhouse have complained about for years but have yet to get fixed.

Under the current capital outlay system, lawmakers and the governor divvy up money for projects requested by groups around New Mexico. There are typically far far more requests than there is money to pay for them.

For example, Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, has $976,000 to spend as he sees fit, but his district has requested more than $66 million in projects.

“The amount of resources are few compared to the amount of need we have across the state,” Campos said.

But the money that is there is not prioritized to serve the largest needs and oftentimes falls far short of fully funding the projects that are selected.

For this year’s severance tax bond package, there was a request for $1.7 million to add video surveillance and build out the fourth floor of Albuquerque’s Metro courthouse. In the bill approved by the House, there’s a paltry $30,000.

“That means that project isn’t going to be fully funded, not even be close to fully funded,” Campos said.

Since that falls well short, the money often sits on the sidelines not going toward other projects that could’ve used that money instead. A recent state auditor’s report found more than $1 billion set aside for capital outlay projects was sitting in a fund and not being spent.

The courthouse is far from the only example this year. A proposal to spend $500,000 making pedestrian improvements to the Albuquerque Uptown area got just $25,000. In Santa Fe, proposals to renovate a key permanent exhibit at the Museum of Indian Arts and to invest in the city’s municipal recreation complex each got a tenth of what was requested.

The other big problem is transparency. Under current rules surrounding capital outlay, there’s no required disclosure on which lawmaker spent money on which project. That means a lack of accountability when the money is set aside for projects that aren’t shovel-ready or aren’t anywhere near fully funded.

“The public doesn’t have a chance to participate in these decisions and as a result, bad decisions get made,” said Fred Nathan with think tank Think New Mexico.

Fixing the system is not a partisan idea either. Labor and business groups both support capital outlay reform. So does the governor and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“What we really need is a system that’s more transparent and merit-based than this hyper-political system that gives each legislator a set sum of money to spend without a plan, without priorities,” Nathan said.

But getting a fix approved has been a long and fruitless fight so far. Campos says he’s been working on the issue for more than two decades. Five separate bills that would’ve changed the system in some way have all stalled so far and supporters acknowledge reform efforts are dead this year.

A big problem is while there’s broad support for change, lawmakers would be required to give up control over the money and there are fears that parts of the state would benefit more than others or could be ignored.

Campos says a solution is long overdue.

“I really believe the dollars will be well spent and they’ll go a lot further,” Campos said. “In the long run, New Mexico will be much better off.”

Meanwhile this year’s capital outlay package has been approved by the House and is awaiting approval in the Senate. The session ends Thursday at noon.

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