NM can make its billions in infrastructure dollars work - Albuquerque Journal

NM can make its billions in infrastructure dollars work

Pete Campos

The availability of hundreds of millions of surplus state dollars next year, coupled with literally billions in federal funds headed to New Mexico over the next five years, means New Mexico has unprecedented opportunity to address its infrastructure needs. We could ensure every New Mexican has access to clean drinking water. We could fix roads and hospitals. We could give our kids safe outdoor places to play and our seniors safe indoor spaces to spend their days. Carefully planned use of those dollars could transform our communities.

But careful planning is the linchpin. For decades, New Mexico has struggled to adopt a system for distributing capital outlay that works for New Mexicans, that puts the dollars where they’re needed most and actually improves lives. Instead, we have a system in which, routinely, hundreds of millions of dollars – and sometimes billions – intended for infrastructure sits idle for years, sometimes because the project was underfunded, sometimes because the project was a low priority for the community it was intended to serve, sometimes for other reasons.

My interest in improving the capital outlay process goes back to my first legislative session in 1991. Recognizing the need for long-term care for those who can’t afford it, I sought and the Legislature approved $800,000 to build the Meadows nursing home at the Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas. That money was never spent and went back to the state. It was only this year – more than 30 years later – that, with new money and not a small amount of tenacity and persistence, a downsized version of the project was completed.

My interest in improving the system for distributing money essential to the well-being of New Mexicans and their communities has not waned in the intervening years. Indeed, I’ve proposed numerous reforms, including a comprehensive approach to changing the system in 2021.

However, while policymakers have seen incremental improvements, the core issues remain. Project funding shortfalls, inadequate planning, shifting community priorities, legal and technical issues, and convoluted funding streams still stop projects in their tracks, and many critical needs are neglected: Dams, reservoirs, watersheds and community water and sewer systems continue to operate without needed repairs. Rural New Mexicans don’t have the technology and communication systems – not even reliable cellphone service – they need to access today’s telehealth options or the basic health care facilities needed to take care of themselves close to home.

Bridges, roads, humane prisons – the list of unmet needs is long, and competition for capital dollars can be fierce. Inefficiencies in the system mean those needs are unmet, even when the money is available. At the start of this fiscal year, New Mexico has over $3.8 billion in outstanding capital outlay balances for over 4,600 active projects, in large part because of historically large investments in capital projects at a time when progress has been slowed by supply chain disruptions and labor shortages.

But after years of incremental change, big improvements are on the horizon. The Legislative Finance Committee now has a capital outlay subcommittee reviewing the process, and staff for the committee has already identified a number of approaches that could move capital money and projects through the process more expeditiously. Among them: prioritized funding for existing but incomplete projects, improved vetting of local capital outlay requests, and a standalone infrastructure office to support the Legislature with statewide needs assessments and oversight and with adequate staff to provide administrative and technical support to local projects, coordinate federal and other outside sources of funding, and otherwise help ensure capital outlay dollars actually provide meaningful improvements in our communities.

Properly implemented, a coordinated, professional approach to legislative capital outlay projects will improve the quality of life in our state, contributing to the well-being of New Mexicans and our economy.

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