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THE VIEW FROM HERE

New system needed for state funding

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The state of New Mexico has two different sets of rules when it comes to funding capital outlay projects for new construction or repair of basic infrastructure.

All funding for education projects is governed by the Public School Capital Outlay Act of 1975. It requires that all school districts go through the same evaluation process, which uses a set of adequacy standards to identify and address the most critical needs first.

The state Supreme Court has made it clear to the Legislature that it has a constitutional responsibility to provide an adequate education to all students, regardless of where they live or who represents them in Santa Fe. Political power can have no role in the allocation of those funds.

Those constraints do not apply to capital outlay spending on all other projects. Each legislator gets a chunk of money to spend as they see fit, with no required prioritization or coordination.

That’s been a constant source of friction with the governor’s office, regardless of which party is in power. Earlier this year, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vetoed $50 million worth of spending in what lawmakers refer to as the “junior bill,” which only comes up in years when the state has money left over after passing the main capital outlay bill.

The junior bill “circumvents the important budget and capital outlay process that forms the basis for other large appropriations bills,” Lujan Grisham argued in her veto message.

The most obvious difference is a lack of transparency. After years of public pressure, the Legislature finally passed a bill last year requiring lawmakers to publicly disclose all of the projects they are funding, along with the dollar amounts. But, that doesn’t apply to the junor bill.

Lack of transparency wasn’t the governor’s primary concern. She wants a say in how the money is spent. And, with that now resolved, lawmakers are scheduled to meet in a special session on April 5.

House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos has acknowledged that the lack of transparency in the junior bill was a problem, and vowed to fix it during the special session. And, she defended the process.

“I reject the notion that these appropriations are not well vetted,” Gallegos wrote, going on to explain how she consults with local leaders before making her decisions. Which is great, but what about the other 111 members of the Legislature? Can she vouch for all of them?

The current system of dividing the money equally serves the political interests of legislators by ensuring that even the most disconnected and inept will come home with something. And, it keeps local officials beholden to them.

It is a wasteful, inefficient system in a state with tremendous needs. Governing magazine has ranked our capital outlay system as the second-worst in the nation.

Capital outlay money comes and goes based primarily on oil revenue. Some years there isn’t any. That makes it critical to spend the money wisely during the good years.

Letting the public see who spends how much for which projects is the least they can do. Real reform of the capital outlay system would remove politics entirely, and focus our money on where it is needed most - like they do for public schools.

Walter Rubel is a freelance journalist based in Las Cruces. His 40-plus-year career includes work in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and— since 2002 — in New Mexico, covering Las Cruces and the state Legislature. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Las Cruces Bulletin. Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.