Legislator spending for projects is disclosed

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A top-ranking Senate Republican put most of his money toward improving Paseo del Volcan, a Sandoval County roadway that has long been envisioned as a time-saving bypass road around Albuquerque’s West Side.

Two top Santa Fe Democrats allocated some of their available dollars for road noise mitigation efforts along the busy highway that heads north to Española.

And more than a dozen lawmakers chipped in for a proposed new sports stadium in Albuquerque – including a few who live in other cities.

New Mexico legislators’ funded capital outlay projects were publicly posted for the first time Monday, after approval of a new law during this year’s 60-day session.

The change, which backers say brings more sunshine to a long-secretive process, allows taxpayers to see how lawmakers are targeting public dollars for road repairs, park improvements and other public works projects.

“Government should always strive to be transparent when dealing with the public’s money,” said Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, which advocated for the change.

She said the capital outlay spending disclosure could increase public trust in government, while also bringing more accountability to the state’s system for funding infrastructure projects.

The new law requires the Legislative Council Service, the Legislature’s administrative arm, to publish a list 30 days after the conclusion of each regular session containing every legislator’s final list of funded projects, along with dollar amounts.

Because the bill had a so-called emergency clause, it took effect immediately upon being signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this month.

The 166-page list published Monday breaks down each of the roughly 2,400 projects funded in this year’s capital outlay package, with the required data about which legislator – or legislators – provided funding.

In fact, the list shows that many of the projects included in the $511 million capital outlay package received dollars from multiple lawmakers.

That includes the more than $4.9 million for the new proposed sports stadium in Albuquerque, which got funding from 13 different legislators – and $4 million from the governor herself.

Lawmakers who allocated funding for the project included three who don’t live in the state’s largest city – Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, Rep. Joshua Hernandez, R-Rio Rancho, and Rep. Linda Serrato, D-Santa Fe.

Although many lawmakers had voluntarily disclosed their capital outlay allocations in recent years, doing so was not mandatory, and previous attempts to require public disclosure had stalled at the Roundhouse before this year’s decisive vote.

Some critics of the measure argued it could open up lawmakers to criticism from lobbyists and outside groups for not funding their preferred projects.

However, Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, who sponsored this year’s bill, said legislators should be prepared to defend such decisions.

“People get mad at me all the time about my vote on a bill – but it’s public record,” McQueen said.

He also said that he was not sure how members of the public might use the capital outlay information but that ensuring their access to it was an “obvious” fix.

In addition, Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said there’s been a mindset shift at the Roundhouse in recent years when it comes to disclosing capital outlay dollars.

“The best thing we can do for our constituents is be as open as possible,” Brandt told the Journal. “If we’re keeping it all behind closed doors, we’re not being transparent about it.”

Of his roughly $2.2 million in available capital outlay money this year, Brandt put more than $1.1 million toward the Paseo del Volcan project, which he said would “immensely benefit” his community.

He said the road extension that would connect Interstate 40 on the west side of Albuquerque to U.S. 550 in Bernalillo would attract businesses and reduce traffic.

Under New Mexico’s capital outlay system for funding improvements to roads, bridges, dams and water systems, each legislator gets a certain amount of money to spend each year, with most of the funding coming from state bonds backed by future tax revenue.

For this year’s legislative session, each representative had slightly more than $1.3 million to spend, while each senator had nearly $2.2 million.

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