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Proposed increase in gas tax rate to fix roads fails

SANTA FE – The debate over how to pay for improvements to New Mexico’s highways heated up Thursday as a proposed increase in the state’s gas tax rate was derailed in a House committee.

The gas tax proposal, which called for a 5-cent increase to be phased in over five years, was tabled in a 6-5 vote in the House Transportation and Public Works Committee, with Republicans voting against the bill and Democrats voting in support.

“For New Mexico, it’s a very sad day when we can’t afford 1 cent per gallon (in additional gas tax),” Rep. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, D-Taos, the measure’s sponsor, told the Journal after Thursday’s vote.

But Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said the proposed gas tax hike – from 17 cents per gallon to 22 cents by 2019 – would hurt New Mexicans financially without providing enough revenue to address the state’s backlog of highway needs.

“For the pain we’ll cause New Mexico families … it’s not really an effective solution,” said Harper, who was among the lawmakers voting against the bill.

The state road fund, which pays for highway projects, has been hit hard in recent years by an economic downturn and largely stagnant federal highway dollars.

In all, New Mexico has had an annual gap of about $250 million per year between available money for road projects and identified needs, according to the state Department of Transportation.

In a separate Thursday development, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee criticized Gov. Susana Martinez’s plan for funding highway repairs and improvements, saying the state should not rely on bond proceeds to pay for such projects.

Martinez has proposed setting aside as much as $300 million over the next five years for big-ticket highway repair and construction projects around the state, saying the infusion would speed up work on unsafe roads while also boosting the state’s economic prospects.

Under the governor’s plan, the money would come from the Legislature’s annual infrastructure bond package, which is backed by severance tax revenue from oil and gas production.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said there are many road projects that need funding, but he disagreed with Martinez’s proposed approach.

“Her plan would spend millions on those needed projects now, but instead of paying for them today, it leaves future New Mexicans to pay off the debt for years to come,” Smith said. “This is not responsible government spending and we must be more careful with taxpayer dollars.”

The measure that would authorize the governor’s highway spending plan had not yet been debated in the 60-day legislative session as of Thursday. It’s scheduled to be voted on in a House committee next week.

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