March 21, 2015

Capital outlay projects dead on arrival

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Proposals for statewide capital outlay were left languishing Saturday as a bitterly divided battle over funding methods consumed the state House of Representatives’ last day of the 2015 session.

RoundhouseA narrow 36 to 32 vote minutes before the House adjourned sine die meant approval of late-hour committee changes to a capital outlay plan favored by the Senate, but that chamber ran out of time to concur with the House adjustments.

The Republican-controlled House Ways and Means Committee made the controversial amendments Friday, adjusting road improvement funding mechanisms to honor preferences of the governor’s office. The committee changes would fund road improvements through $45 million in severance tax bonds rather than drawing down reserves from the state’s general fund.

Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, described the measure as state government “borrowing short to build long-term assets,” adding it constituted “a sound practice from a business perspective.”

Democrats vehemently objected to the changes, which they said would result in the denial of tens of millions of dollars from high- and critical-priority projects identified over the last year by local governments.

Democratic representatives tallied a 77 percent reduction to Aging and Long-Term Services Division infrastructure improvement proposals as a result of the Ways and Means Committee amendment, along with additional cuts to tribal and higher education projects.

House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, responded by offering a floor amendment that would reverse the Ways and Means Committee changes, which Democrats said also included a $45 million line-item allocation for the Department of Transportation they said was troublingly non-specific.

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, defended his panel’s changes in a testy exchange with Egolf. Harper said the road funding changes were necessary after negotiations with Senate leadership, including Senate Finance Committee chair John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, broke down.

“The Senate walked away and sent us over a bill in which they decided to dictate what the executive’s portion of these tax bonds would be,” he said. “This body has never told the executive how to spend his or her portion of the capital outlay funds.”

Egolf all but scolded Harper.

“For the sake of the people of New Mexico, cut it out. … Give up on the ego and the hurt feelings.”

He added, “I’m not here to carry water for governor Martinez. I hope that you aren’t either.”

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, said he opposed the House committee changes in part because they shifted $12 million to the state’s Local Economic Development Act fund while making reductions for well-vetted community college infrastructure projects.

Such an approach, he said, was counterproductive to promoting economic development. “There will be real people affected by this in a very negative matter.”

As Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert pointed out toward the end of the debate’s three hours, there is no constitutional requirement to fund local requests for capital outlay, so the project proposals would await the final word of Martinez if they passed the legislature.

Similar partisan divisions in 2011 caused the demise of that year’s capital outlay proposals, though it passed in a special session later that year.

Correction:

This story previously did not say that capital outlay passed in a special session in 2011 after failing in the regular session. We regret the error.