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New proposal to reform NM public works system

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s capital outlay, or “pork,” system for divvying up money for public works projects has remained largely unchanged since the 1980s, despite repeated efforts to do so and frequent criticism.

But a Santa Fe-based think tank that has spearheaded several high-profile policy changes in recent years, Think New Mexico, plans to push an overhaul of the capital outlay system, saying the time has come for more transparency and less politics in the annual task of infrastructure funding.

Think New Mexico’s plan, which it intends to push during next year’s session, calls for the creation of a capital outlay planning board – based on an Oklahoma model – that would be made up of legislative and executive branch officials, but not lawmakers.

The board would compile a statewide infrastructure plan based on lists provided by cities, counties and state agencies. Projects on the plan would be ranked and prioritized via a scoring system. It would then be up to the Legislature to approve an annual capital outlay bill that would provide funding for the selected projects, and lawmakers would not be able to add pet projects.

“While this effort might appear to be taking the punch bowl away from the party and replacing it with a plate of spinach, more and more policymakers on both sides of the aisle are stepping forward and acknowledging that the system for allocating infrastructure dollars is completely broken,” said Fred Nathan, executive director of Think New Mexico. “That creates an opportunity to make some changes that are long overdue.”

A spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez said the governor intends to include capital outlay reform on the agenda for next year’s 30-day legislative session, but he said Martinez had not reviewed Think New Mexico’s proposal.

Martinez has previously called on lawmakers to fully fund infrastructure projects included in the annual capital works bill, not just provide partial funding.

“Our infrastructure money should be spent on projects that put New Mexicans to work in the short run, lay a foundation for long-term growth and address the large regional and statewide infrastructure needs we face,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan told the Journal last week. “This is a critical, high-priority issue and an area that is desperately in need of reform.”

New Mexico’s capital outlay system has come under increased scrutiny in recent months. In large part, that’s because a package of public works projects died on the final day of this year’s 60-day legislative session.

Although a revised $295 million package of projects was later approved during a single-day June special session and signed into law by Martinez, the original bill’s demise prompted renewed calls for changes to the capital outlay system.

Under the state’s current system, lawmakers are allocated a set amount of funding that they can divide up for infrastructure projects in their legislative districts – and sometimes other districts.

Think New Mexico says the system has often led to piecemeal funding of projects and a greater influence from lobbyists. A Legislative Finance Committee report released this year found that roughly $788 million for 2,146 infrastructure projects around the state had gone unspent, with some of the unspent money dating back to 2009.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said he largely agrees with the proposed capital outlay overhaul and said legislators should consider it during the coming session, which starts in January.

However, he cautioned that some lawmakers might resist a plan that could lead to a reduction in infrastructure dollars flowing to their legislative districts.

“It’s going to be a heavy lift,” Harper said. “There are still a lot of legislators who believe they are re-elected due to capital outlay.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, said he would like to see the capital outlay system be made more like the state’s budgeting process, which requires state agencies to air public budget requests before the start of each year’s legislative session.

“We need to hold our feet to the fire,” Varela said.

Previous governors have also tried – largely unsuccessfully – to amend the capital outlay process, which uses bonds backed by state severance tax revenue to pay for infrastructure projects.

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