Editorial: Infrastructure bridge; $8.8B windfall can launch NM into this century with clean water, safe roads, broadband

There’s two-lane New Mexico State Road 128 in the oil patch, aka Jal Highway. Or as some locals call it, “Killer 128” because of its dips, blind spots and notorious head-on collisions involving oil field trucks.

There’s the lack of running water, cracked bridges and earthen roads on the Navajo Nation.

There are the vast broadband internet gaps in rural – and urban – areas throughout the state.

There was extensive flooding this summer in Rio Rancho (again), and also near Roswell where a stone wall along the Hondo River Trail recently collapsed after flash flooding.

New Mexico has had its share of infrastructure needs for decades – just ask your local mayor or county commissioner.

State lawmakers learned last week the state is on pace to reap an all-time record of more than $8.8 billion in revenue in the coming budget year. The estimates released Aug. 27 by executive and legislative economists project state lawmakers will have nearly $1.4 billion of “new” money – a number that represents the difference between expected revenue and the state’s current $7.4 billion budget (which in itself was a 5% spending increase over the prior year). Current projections are nearly $1 billion more than what was projected in February due to surging oil and natural gas production and a rise in consumer spending.

There’s some irony that the news was unveiled at a Legislative Finance Committee meeting at Taos Ski Valley, which has the highest gross receipts tax rate in the state of 9.4375%. Ironic because some lawmakers are suggesting using the “sky-high revenue” to help cushion an overdue overhaul of the state’s GRT system, which has been debated by lawmakers for years. Making the state’s tax system less onerous and more business-friendly has been an elusive goal for years that would be a long-term investment in the state’s future.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislative leaders are being handed an opportunity of a political lifetime thanks to O&G and Uncle Sam.

The oil industry recovered quicker than expected after the price of U.S. oil plunged negative for the first time in history in April 2020. As travel and business restrictions have been lifted and vaccines have become available, the price of West Texas Intermediate, sourced primarily from the Permian Basin in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, is approaching $70 a barrel. Natural gas production has also surged in New Mexico after a national supply glut previously stifled production and prices.

And total personal income in New Mexico reached record heights during the pandemic, primarily due to federal stimulus checks and expanded unemployment benefits that recently ended, translating into higher-than-expected state gross receipts and income tax collections.

The windfall allows for bold initiatives, big-ticket investments, and the governor can lead that charge by focusing on a handful of proposals and sticking to them.

One priority should be revamping the GRT. And elsewhere those big-ticket items should focus on infrastructure.

In the year 2021, it’s obscene there isn’t clean, running water accessible to every home in New Mexico, particularly on the Navajo Nation.

Our kids shouldn’t have to sweat it out in 90-degree-plus classrooms, especially if we extend the school year into summer months.

And the fact many New Mexicans can’t join the internet age – and many folks won’t relocate their businesses here because of the lack of connectivity, well, those are a couple of good starting points.

Sen. George Muñoz, vice chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, gets it. He suggests much of the revenue windfall should be spent on one-time expenditures and not built into the state budget. To commit this and thus future money for such things as state government employee salaries would squander this opportunity and indebt generations of taxpayers.

“There’s going to be a lot more money than we know what to do with in the next few years, but it’s not going to last forever,” said Muñoz, D-Gallup. “Now is the time to tackle the structural issues of New Mexico,” he told the Journal.

The new revenue does not include $1.75 billion in federal relief funds that have only been partially earmarked by the governor’s administration, nor does it include more than $1.5 billion that is projected to automatically flow into a state “rainy day” fund and an early childhood endowment fund over the next two years.

Perhaps the first step is to define infrastructure. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the system of public works of a country, state, or region.” That means bridges, broadband, highways, clean water – not human infrastructure, not employee retention bonuses, not paying off employees’ student loans.

We need game-changing projects that will last for years and make a difference in communities. We need things we can see and touch and say “Hey, we paid for that. It’s about damn time they got that done.”

Bring on the bricks and mortar. Pile up the steel girders. Hire the many union laborers. Let’s not squander this bonanza. Let’s fix those roads and bridges and highways that need it most, and ensure every New Mexican home has access to clean running water and the internet.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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