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Editorial: Legislature should shed light on capital spending

Could it finally happen?

Could New Mexicans in the near future actually know how capital projects are funded by their legislators and governor? Who offered how much from their respective capital outlay buckets for which projects?

This has been a well-kept secret for decades, with many key lawmakers resisting efforts to shine a light on this process.

But, much as was the case with live webcasting, New Mexico could be on the verge of moving away from this unnecessary secrecy to a more enlightened system.

House Bill 262, a project of Think New Mexico and sponsored by Democratic Reps. Matthew McQueen, Natalie Figueroa and Joy Garratt, would require that, beginning in 2020, the Legislative Council Service publish on the legislative website a “searchable list of capital projects that passed the Legislature and the names of legislators or the governor who allocated a portion of the capital outlay appropriation or bond authorization for each project.” It goes on to require publication of the “amount of the allocation designated by each legislator and the governor.”

This would allow constituents to understand which projects their elected representatives selected for funding and how they ordered priorities.

As there was with livestreaming, there has been incredible resistance to this – with the exception of some legislators who voluntarily agreed to make their requests public. Why the resistance? Perhaps because secrecy avoids scrutiny and questions.

Why, for example, did a lawmaker decide to allocate money to a small but perhaps politically expedient “pork” item rather than something that would be a significant investment in the state or in his or her hometown or district? Which of the many requests lawmakers receive did they decide to fund?

If all that is secret, you don’t have to do much in the way of explaining your decisions. It’s part of why New Mexico consistently gets terrible grades for its capital outlay system.

But there is progress.

HB262 has passed the House unanimously and is awaiting a hearing in Senate Judiciary in the closing hours of the session. It had been slated for consideration Wednesday, but committee time ran out and it didn’t reconvene after a long floor session. The measure already has cleared Senate Rules on a 4-2 vote and there is no reason for delay in Finance as the measure has no real fiscal impact. Moving it to a floor vote would be an important step forward.

And there is growing grass roots support.

In the House – where then-Rep. Janice Arnold Jones, R-Albuquerque, simply started streaming hearings over loud objections – there already has been a strong statement of support. Further, House Republicans announced they will publicly disclose their projects to ensure total transparency.

“These dollars belong to the taxpayers and they deserve to know how they’re being spent,” said Minority Leader Jim Townsend of Artesia.

Going a step further, they also vowed to make public their funding requests in the so-called “junior” spending bill – a pot of cash available this year from the general fund overflowing with oil and gas generated surplus dollars. The spending plan for that money essentially was crafted in secret.

Think New Mexico’s executive director, Fred Nathan, is urging action in Senate Finance and a floor vote, no doubt encouraged by both the House passage and Republican caucus statement, as they seem to reflect a growing appetite for transparency – a glimmer of light in a session where there have been too many assaults on open government and the public’s right to know.

New Mexicans who would like to know how their money is being spent no doubt would agree with him.

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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