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Editorial: Public needs to know who spends its cash, and on what

“Capital outlay funds, in the context of government, are those used to build, improve or equip physical property that will be used by the public. … Much … is funded through three sources: general obligation bonds, severance tax bonds, and nonrecurring general fund revenue.”

– N.M. Legislative Finance Committee

“It is taxpayer money. It doesn’t belong to us – it belongs to the citizens of New Mexico. This just makes public the final list on how we appropriate that money.”

– Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, SB 144 sponsor

We are the only state in the union that divvies up the money to be spent on capital assets by handing it over to politicians with no regard for what it will be used for. One third each goes to the Senate, House and governor.

And despite what some lawmakers would have you – the taxpayer who is footing the bill – believe, there is no way to figure out who is asking for, or who gets, what. Hundreds of individual projects are crammed into a single bill, often with multiple lawmakers as sponsors. Or none. Attaching their name is a lawmaker’s prerogative.

So Sens. Sander Rue and Jacob Candelaria and Reps. Matthew McQueen, Natalie Figueroa, Joy Garratt and Bill Tallman introduced bills, one in each chamber, so taxpayers would finally have transparency regarding the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year on everything from highways, bridges and water systems to a wrestling mat, zoo animal and golf course lawn mower.

And on Friday, the Senate Rules Committee killed SB 144 with a bipartisan 6-5 vote. It is essential to transparent, accountable government that HB 262, which passed the House unanimously and is sitting in Senate Rules, not meet the same fate. While we could continue to argue why that’s so important, lawmakers who spoke out against the Senate version are much more eloquent:

• Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, said: “There’s nothing that’s not transparent about this. … If we put money in Los Lunas, we know that the majority of the money comes from myself (and fellow area lawmakers). That’s transparent. I object to the press and these organizations wanting us to do the work for them. Get out there and do your homework!” The facts are, many legislators request capital funding outside their home district, and there is no master list, nor individual requests with names attached, the public can use to do its “homework.”

• Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, says the plan pits him against his colleagues as to “who’s going to get the credit for it? … Are the voters going to say, oh Sen. Pirtle threw his money into sewer lines, but Rep. (Candy) Ezzell got us a baseball park, and we really love baseball.”

Capital outlay money is public money, and the public elects its representatives to make the tough decisions about where it will have the most positive impact. They need to be able to stand by their decisions. Reforming the system to vet projects and prioritize needs over wants will make that an easier row to hoe. The bottom line should be smart, long-term investments that hold up to scrutiny, not that garner quick political credit.

Pirtle also said the legislation is aimed at an “Albuquerque problem,” but don’t taxpayers in more rural communities like Roswell, Artesia, Socorro or Hatch have a right to know how their money is being spent?

• Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, says “this process is so open compared to what it was in the first 10 years when I was up here.” Unfortunately, the only change to the system has been to carve the pork evenly among legislators rather than give the majority party a bigger slice.

The New Mexico Association of Counties, Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and Santa Fe-based think tank Think New Mexico support the legislation. Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, backed the Senate bill and points out making capital outlay lists public would cut the likelihood of the dollars being misused.

He’s right. Because while Sanchez went on to say that there’s “nothing corrupt” about New Mexico’s capital outlay system, given New Mexico’s history of government corruption (two treasurers, a secretary of state and two senators now have felony records), the public shouldn’t have to take anyone’s word at face value when it comes to government accountability.

And a cynic might ask, if the system isn’t corrupt, why are lawmakers acting like there’s something to hide?

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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