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A ‘rural equity’ ombudsman is (mostly) a good idea

Rural communities, such as Ojo Sarco in Rio Arriba County, would get support from a “rural equity” ombudsman, a post proposed in the Legislature. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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

A bill sponsored by a couple of rural state senators tries to bridge the deepening urban-rural divide in New Mexico by creating a “rural equity” ombudsman post within the state Department of Finance and Administration.

The measure, as promoted by its supporters, sounds like a good idea.

Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, told the Senate Indian, Rural and Cultural Affairs Committee that the position is necessary to address the needs of rural people.

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

The other sponsor, Sen. Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte, said Senate Bill 193 was intended to “bring a voice to rural and frontier New Mexico.”

A supporter of the bill – progressive health care activist Carol Miller, who has run for Congress as a Green Party nominee – told senators it can be difficult for rural communities to access the resources they need, especially if they have tiny populations, as does her village of Ojo Sarco in a remote part of Rio Arriba County.

“We’re trying to get the benefits of government and resources all the way out to the last mile,” said Miller, a board member for the National Center for Frontier Communities.

It’s certain that there needs to be a focus on New Mexico’s rural issues. Most of New Mexico is rural.

Broadband service for outlying areas has been a focal point for politicians for years, but internet outside New Mexico’s cities and towns remains spotty, despite several initiatives that have promised to fix the problem. Other infrastructure issues also continue to crop up, as when rural water supplies fail or become tainted, or dams aren’t maintained.

An urban Democrat, Albuquerque’s Sen. Gerry Ortiz y Pino, and a rural Republican, Rep. Gail Armstrong of Magdalena, in 2019 took on the cause of small, rural libraries and pushed through a measure to provide a $6 million endowment fund (an amount that was much less than the sponsors said was needed to generate interest earnings that could go to the libraries). Miller has been among those fighting to retain rural post offices.

SB 193 says an ombudsman would work with local, federal and state governments, and nonprofit groups to provide technical and planning support on issues including infrastructure, health care, education, public safety, energy, tourism and economic development.

Beyond that, the ombudsman (a word which, maybe in a nod to more urban sensibilities, the bill replaces with the gender-neutral non-word “ombud”) would be tasked with making sure rural communities “have a voice in state and local government.”

The holder of the new position also would “take and resolve complaints from rural and frontier communities about laws and rules that are intentionally or unintentionally biased against rural and frontier communities.”

Ah, here’s where trying to bridge the urban-rural divide gets trickier.

Would the “ombud” be expected to take up the cause when some rural New Mexicans support such controversial activities as coyote-killing contests or trapping on public lands? Would the “ombud” back the oil and gas industry in rural New Mexico over the progressive city-slickers calling for more environmental safeguards or drilling bans and moratoriums? What about mask-wearing during the pandemic?

State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a Roswell Republican, seemed to be taking a symbolic stand for rural conservatives on these kinds of issues when he recently proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow counties to secede from New Mexico.

“It’s just a response to the lack of respect toward southeast New Mexico,” Pirtle said. “It seems like, more and more, it’s the ideals of Albuquerque that become law.”

He also said that bills filed at the Roundhouse this year to ban animal trapping on public lands and restrict pesticide use represent a “direct attack” on many rural New Mexicans’ way of life.

The urban-rural split in New Mexico is real and severe. An ombudsman, or whatever you want to call him or her, is not going to solve that.

But he/she could provide appropriate, non-partisan support for rural New Mexico in general and help explain, for instance, how relatively small local improvements on the “frontier” deserve as much attention as improving the alligator habitat at the Albuquerque zoo or an art museum storage facility in Santa Fe.

Miller says it’s more difficult for rural residents to access the data they need to make informed decisions about where they live and that there is “no single place even collecting data” that could help.

SB 193 doesn’t appear to be gaining traction in the legislative process this year. But the bill’s content, with amendments to somehow keep an ombudsman out of partisan politics, deserves a look.