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Capital outlay bill advances in Senate

The new Vladem contemporary art museum in Santa Fe was among the projects flagged by the Legislative Finance Committee in a recent report. Of the more than $4 million in state funds appropriated for the museum in 2019, only about $40,000 had been spent as of November. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A House-approved proposal to add some transparency to New Mexico’s capital outlay process began moving through Senate committees Friday as supporters pitched it as a first step toward broader reform.

The legislation, House Bill 55, has repeatedly cleared the House in past sessions only to die in the Senate.

But supporters are expressing optimism about final passage this year because 11 members of the 42-person Senate are new to the chamber.

The legislation would shine more light on New Mexico’s secretive capital outlay process for funding road repairs, dams and other infrastructure projects. Legislators now allocate funding for projects but don’t have to disclose their decisions.

The full list of projects and amounts is public, but not how much each member allocated to a project. In this year’s session, each legislator has about $2 million in capital outlay funds to spend.

House Bill 55 would require the Legislature – 30 days after the session – to publish a list of capital projects approved each year with details on which legislators sponsored each project and how much funding they or the governor allocated to it.

Sen. Bill Tallman, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, described the publication of legislators’ individual allocations as a good start toward future reforms of how New Mexico chooses capital outlay projects.

“If enacted,” he said, “it will address the transparency, but it wouldn’t fix a broken system.”

The proposal advanced through the Senate Rules Committee on a 9-1 vote. It heads next to the Senate Finance Committee, potentially its last stop before the Senate floor.

To win final passage, it has to clear both chambers by noon March 20.

Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, said lawmakers should be proud to disclose which projects they’re supporting.

“I just think this is commonsense,” he said of the bill.

The proposal won House approval 65-1 last month. The sponsors include Tallman; Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo; Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas; and Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec.

Tallman, a retired city manager, said New Mexico’s capital outlay process now results in large amounts of funding sitting unused. Lawmakers often allocate small amounts that aren’t enough to actually carry out a particular project, he said, tying up money that could otherwise be put to good use.

Tallman suggested the Legislature eventually needs to move to a system in which projects are vetted and evaluated for their impact on the state as a whole, though proposals for such an overhaul have been unsuccessful in recent years.

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