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Fighting for the frontiers

The rural community of Ojo Sarco in northern New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill’s political affiliation. She is a Democrat.

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Tensions between New Mexico’s rural and urban areas is nothing new, but some senators are hoping a new position in state government could help address that issue.

Senate Bill 139 seeks to create the new position – a rural equity ombudsman, whose job would be to address the concerns of New Mexicans living in some of the state’s most remote regions.

Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, told the Senate Indian, Rural and Cultural Affairs Committee on Feb. 4 that the position is necessary to address the needs of rural people that she said can go unaddressed.

“In rural New Mexico … our communities are often underserved or unserved in many areas,” Correa Hemphill said.

She co-sponsored the bill with southern New Mexico Republican Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte. Both were elected to their seats in 2020.

If passed, SB 139 would create at least one position for an ombudsman who would be charged with responding to “issues of concern to rural and frontier communities,” according to the legislation.

The bill lists many issues the ombudsman would be involved in, including access to health care, management of natural resources and technological issues, among others.

Carol Miller, a board member for the National Center for Frontier Communities, told senators it can be difficult for rural communities to access the resources they need, esp

Carol Miller is secretary of the Ojo Sarco Community Center, located in western Rio Arriba County. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

ecially if they have tiny populations.

“We’re trying to get the benefits of government and resources all the way out to the last mile,” Miller said.

A resident of Ojo Sarco, a small area of around 300 people in Rio Arriba County, Miller has often advocated for New Mexico’s most far-flung locales. She told the Journal it can be even more difficult for rural areas to access data they need to make informed decisions about where they live.

“We realized that there was no single place even collecting data on what was happening in the state,” she said. “The hope is that, as we move forward as a state, we’ll have methods for collecting information about community needs.”

Yvonne Bonner, with the Ojo Sarco Community Center takes food out of the food pantry. The center provides food for 38 families in the area twice a month. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The ombudsman would be hired by the state Department of Finance and Administration. Sen. Brenda McKenna, D-Corrales, told the bill’s sponsors she could see an entire office being formed to address the issues of various communities across the state.

The bill comfortably passed the Indian, Rural and Cultural Affairs Committee and now awaits another vote at the Senate Finance Committee. As of Thursday, it has not yet been scheduled for its second committee assignment.

It’s not the first time this legislative session that an urban/rural divide in New Mexico has been discussed.

Kit Carson Internet supplies wi-fi for the Ojo Sarco Community Center in northern New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, sponsored a piece of legislation early in the session that sought to allow counties in New Mexico to secede from the state if they so wished. Pirtle told the Journal he wrote the bill in response to what he saw as a lack of attention given to southeast New Mexico communities.

“It seems like, more and more, it’s the ideals of Albuquerque that become law,” he said.

Diamond told fellow senators that SB 139 will hopefully give rural communities a greater voice in state government moving forward.

“We’re here to bring a voice to rural and frontier New Mexico,” Diamond said.

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