Giving a voice to rural and frontier communities is the idea behind a bill sponsored by state Sen. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, D-Rancho de Taos.
The bill calls for a “rural equity ombud” to be designated within the state Department of Finance and Administration. It currently is in the Senate Committees’ Committee and must also pass through the Public Affairs Committee, as well as the Senate Finance Committee.
“This is actually year four of working in this direction trying to get more equity for frontier and rural communities in New Mexico,” said activist Carol Miller of Ojo Sarco, who has been working with a coalition of organizations advocating for just such a state slot. “We’re calling for the state to start trying to make itself more accommodating to the smaller communities.”
The bill does not call for additional staffing, only that an existing staff person within the finance and administration department take on the role.
Gonzales, a former state representative who was appointed to the District 6 senate seat in December following the death of Sen. Carlos Cisneros, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the bill. But Miller, who three times ran unsuccessfully for public office, said it is an important step for organizations trying to help rural residents.
“We are in an exciting time to have an advocate in state government,” she said. “It’s not for individuals. It’s to take and resolve complaints from agencies and organizations. The hope is as they are documented and fall into certain kinds of categories, they will be able to proactively work toward solutions.”
Too often, Miller said, state government does not get a clear picture of the issues facing rural residents.
“With a central point of contact, we can develop positive information about the laws and regulations that are intentionally or unintentionally biased against rural residents,” she said. “This will help in distributing resources more equitably around the state.”
Under the bill’s guidelines, it will “provide planning assistance to the state and counties to ensure that concerns of residents of rural and frontier communities are being addressed as part of the state’s or a county’s planning processes in health; human services; educational services; economic development; infrastructure planning, funding and improvements, including water and wastewater, utilities, roads and highways, broadband and other infrastructure; public safety; transportation; land use and land development; tourism; energy; natural resource management, including game and fish resources; community development block grant projects; and state or local planning in conjunction with federal agencies and funding.”
It would also help create a way to impact future legislation affecting those communities by providing “bill analyses and testimony to the legislature on legislation that positively or negatively affects rural and frontier communities.”
Miller, who is best known for her advocacy of community health care in New Mexico, said she’s realized that it all tied together.
“A number of years ago, I had switched my focus to more economic development,” she said. “Communities that had more (economic) resources had more health care. Throughout the state, there are many areas that have no local economy whatsoever. How are we going to start bringing the whole state up?”
Last year, a bipartisan Senate joint memorial to convene a working group to identity challenges of the frontier and rural communities was included in the state budget with support from all corners of the state, but was a line-item-veto casualty.
However, a coalition formed out of that effort, bringing together the New Mexico Association of Regional Councils as an umbrella organization to oversee the continued push for rural advocacy at the state level.
“Since (the) last session, we’ve had ongoing meetings and one of the options to consider, which was favored by many people, was trying to put together one central place in state government that agencies and organizations could share problems in accessing state resources,” Miller said.
Among the issues facing rural and frontier communities is the wide diversity of those very communities, she said.
“We’re hopeful this will pass this year,” she said. “Part of the problem is our state is so diverse, and isolated and small communities’ needs are different from location to location.”
That diversity can be a strength and a weakness, Miller said.
“It doesn’t take a very long drive in New Mexico to have it sink in that there are some communities doing quite well, but there are many which are not,” she said. “We can prevent that if we can build up and make our kids proud of all of our communities; it will help with a lot of social problems after the fact.”
She said it’s the type of move that could set New Mexico up as a leader in this area.
“It’s kind of exciting,” Miller said. “I’m not aware of other states having ombuds to collect problems that communities face. At our working group, we studied things other states are doing. There are some real concerns, like lack of investment and disinvestment in unincorporated areas and small incorporated areas. This is a case of which we’re really proud. If this passes, and I’m optimistic that this will pass, it will be a place for New Mexico to provide leadership, not only in our state, but also in other states that are struggling with these kinds of issues.”