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Proposal strives to close urban-rural divide

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bill that aims to bridge the urban-rural divide in New Mexico and passed the House with bipartisan support now awaits consideration in the Senate Rules Committee.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Roger Montoya, D-Velarde, remains hopeful that his proposed Rural Opportunity Act gets to the Senate floor before the 60-day legislative session ends March 20.

A thunderstorm forms over the Jemez Mountains near the San Pedro Catholic Church in Youngsville. A bill now in Senate committee aims to narrow the disparity between urban and rural areas in such areas as water services, health care, electric infrastructure and broadband. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“I feel confident that once it’s heard and gets onto the floor, there will be support,” he said.

The measure, House Bill 16, was approved via a 65-0 vote in the House on March 3. Along the way, the bill has picked up 26 co-sponsors, including a dozen Republicans.

“People saw the logic,” Montoya said. “They were very much on board because they saw it as something equitable that addresses rural areas all across New Mexico.”

The bill would create an interim committee that, over the next two years, would make recommendations about how to improve services in rural areas like access to running water, wastewater treatment, health care services, electricity and broadband.

About one-third of the state’s 2.1 million residents live in rural areas where access to services is inconsistent, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill, which also notes a shortage of health care workers in New Mexico is most profound in rural areas.

Montoya said the bill is designed to take an approach similar to what he used as a community organizer: identify a problem, invite a diverse group of people with different perspectives and then try to solve it.

The interim Rural Opportunity Act Committee would be made up 14 lawmakers who would meet when the Legislature is not in session.

While the proliferation of interim committees has come under fire from some lawmakers, Montoya said the proposed addition would fill an important niche.

“This is pulling everyone together to decide what the plan needs to be and what the recommendations should be,” he said.

Under the bill, the committee would produce findings and recommendations by Dec. 15 each of the next two years, after which it would be disbanded. By then, Montoya said lawmakers should have all they need to craft legislation to address the disparity in services between rural and urban areas.

Montoya said the Rural Opportunity Act is “cousin” legislation to Senate Bill 193, which would create a rural equity ombudsman within the Department of Finance and Administration.

“The needs are just too massive” for just one person in an ombudsman role, he said.