KRQE News 13 treasure hunt tracks down millions

A four-month KRQE News 13 investigation

Larry Barker

SANTA FE (KRQE) – It’s a $6,000,000 treasure trove of public money that is unspent and stashed away, for years, in an obscure government program. When House Ways and Means Chairman, Rep. Jason Harper found out he was “shocked.”

“When we think about having six or seven million dollars laying (around) somewhere that hasn’t been touched in years, we need to take a harder look at things,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle.

The focus of KRQE News 13’s investigation is on the ‘Art in Public Places’ program at the Department of Cultural Affairs in Santa Fe. New Mexico’s Public Art Office is responsible for showcasing the state’s artistic diversity through public art. Since inception, the program has acquired a vast collection of paintings, photographs, textiles and sculptures for public display across the state.

New Mexico Public Art is funded through a state law referred to as “1% for the Arts”. The statute requires one-percent of every legislative capital construction appropriation be set aside for public art. For example, if lawmakers approve $200,000 to construct, say, a new senior center in Albuquerque, one-percent of that, or $2,000, goes into the Public Art Fund. That money is then used to acquire artwork for the new building.

Year over year funding

Since it began 30 years ago, the “1% for the Arts” program has funded more than 2,500 artistic compositions worth an estimated $14 million. Examples of 1% art work include an abstract landscape mural at the newly constructed State Scientific Laboratory in Albuquerque. And, gracing the lobby of the new Court of Appeals building in Albuquerque is a unique metal sculpture purchased with 1% funds. These are the success stories. Behind the scenes, however, New Mexico’s public art program is troubled.

There are hundreds of examples:

  • The $2.6 million BMX racing park in Albuquerque. Even though this state funded project was completed 9 years ago, the $26,000 designated for art work there has yet to be spent.
  • The Las Cruces Aquatic Center was built a decade ago. The $91,000 earmarked for art work there is still sitting in Santa Fe.
  • In 2006, lawmakers appropriated $300,000 to renovate the historic Red Brick School House in Tularosa. However, the $3,000 designated for public art there is nowhere to be seen.
  • The Albuquerque Zoo’s Veterinary Clinic has been waiting eight years to see the $5,400 that was supposed to be spent on art work there.

KRQE News 13’s four-month investigation found the Department of Cultural Affairs failing to fund hundreds upon hundreds of art projects across the state. And, it’s not because the agency doesn’t have the money. In fact, Cultural Affairs has been sitting on more than $6 million. Instead of spending the money, the Department of Cultural Affairs stockpiled it. Millions of dollars have been parked for almost a decade and some goes all the way back to 1998.

When asked whether that is a problem, Cultural Affairs Cabinet Secretary Veronica Gonzales replied, “Oh absolutely.”

State Rep. Jason Harper says the $6 million sitting at Cultural Affairs caught his attention.

“I was shocked. Six million dollars has been sitting there 10 years stale. That’s a large sum of money that could really go to some important projects,” Rep. Harper said.

“We’re in a tough world on money,” Senator Ingle said. “Money like that that’s sitting there needs to be put to some good use. It was a part of an appropriation. If it hasn’t been used in these years it needs to be taken away. The state of New Mexico (surely has) a better use for it than sitting somewhere,” Senator Ingle told KRQE News 13.

Santa Fe State Senator Peter Wirth said New Mexico can’t afford to have $6 million just sitting around for years.

“I think we need to get these dollars out. We need to put the money to work and we need to showcase the extraordinary art that’s created in this state,” Senator Wirth said.

“Art is a major economic driver throughout the state and this program provides work for artists. We should not overlook the fact that when the dollars aren’t getting out that impacts our economy so we need to get this program on track,” Senator Wirth adds.

How did Cultural Affairs end up stockpiling more than $6 million all these years?

“It’s obviously something we’re very concerned about. I think there were a lot of mitigating circumstances,” said Cultural Affairs Secretary Gonzales.

Secretary Gonzales says the problem was created some 10 years ago during the previous administration. The years 2006, 2007 and 2008 were years when New Mexico was flush with surplus revenue. Lawmakers went on a record setting capital spending spree authorizing billions of dollars for statewide construction projects. One-percent of that went into the Public Art Fund which translates into millions of dollars for public art.

“The art in public places program is one program that really suffered in terms of staff capacity…. It had a huge number of projects that they were trying to address. So they got behind,” Secretary Gonzales told KRQE News 13.

The process for selecting each art piece is very time consuming. Cultural Affairs was faced with a nearly impossible task. It was required to dole out millions of dollars for hundreds of art projects across the state without enough staff to do the job. Instead of increasing Cultural Affair’s budget, lawmakers slashed it. According to Secretary Gonzales, “There were massive budget cuts. The department itself suffered close to $8 million in loss of funding.”

 1st Judicial District Courthouse - Santa Fe County
1st Judicial District Courthouse – Santa Fe County. Click on image to view gallery of sites in New Mexico.

KRQE News 13 reviewed Art In Public Places funding between 2004 and 2008. During that five-year period, the department was unable to process more than $3.5 million intended for 593 individual public art projects scattered across the state. Today that backlog has grown to $6.2 million for about a thousand projects.

Senator Peter Wirth says not all the blame should be placed on the Cultural Affairs Department.

“We appropriated this money in those years and by the time the dollars got into the system we had taken away the employees that the agency needed to implement the program,” Senator Wirth said.

“It’s a resource question. We’ve got to get the resources to the agencies so that they can do the job the law requires them to do. And we haven’t done as good a job as we should have,” according to Peter Wirth.

Secretary Gonzales says, “This has been one of my top priorities. We do take it very seriously. We’re trying to get these balances spent down. We’re trying to address the projects that are still waiting to be initiated.”

Secretary Gonzales won’t speculate when, or even, if, her department will be able to eliminate the art project backlog. However, some lawmakers are losing patience.

“I can tell them one thing. They better get a better plan about how to use this 1% for the arts (money) or before the paint dries we’re going to have it,” says Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle.

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Sortable Database of AIPP Appropriations 2004 – 2008

Database Legend: Funding Codes

  • GF – General Fund
  • GOB – General Obligation Bonds
  • STB – Severance Tax Bonds
  • STBR – Severance Tax Bonds Reauthorized
  • SRF – State Road Fund

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