February 5, 2016

Take down a capital infrastructure ‘Christmas Tree’

Photo Credit: Reinis Traidas cc

Coco J. Harris worked in the planning profession for 26 years.

Step One: Don’t keep decorating it.

The Governor sees an angle in having a capital plan. She’s put HB307—the Capital Outlay Reform Act on her call, which allows discussion during this year’s legislative session.

I posted about SB 33, another reform bill here. The bills differ in major respects but also have similarly worded sections on capital project criteria that seem too detailed for statute.

SB 33 would create a planning council made up of agency representatives with enough funding for one year and one plan. It placed planning responsibility with the legislative branch. HB 307  would keep it in the executive branch and funded. It would abolish the Local Government Division (which has coordinated planning responsibilities since the cabinet level planning department was eliminated in 1983*) and create a new Capital Planning and Assistance Division to do ongoing work.

But HB307 would also follow through on Think New Mexico’s problematic recommendation of establishing an expert “non-political” thirteen member council that includes architects, engineers and construction professionals. Finding anyone to serve who wouldn’t have a direct conflict of interest would be challenging. Engineers and building industry professionals are dependent on state capital dollars for their livelihoods. Injecting their contract interests and those of their associates directly into the capital planning process would make it even more political.

Sections of both bills contain similar new material about how councils should set guidelines and both go a step further by bumping  up a project’s leveraging matching funds as a priority consideration. This could anticipate insertion of a couple of huge, controversial regional projects that hold the promise of federal money.**

In creating new councils both bills would take direct heat off of legislators for listing or not listing projects. It could serve as important cover for inclusion of some big unpopular projects. It buries those decisions behind planning rhetoric and is still top-down.

*I contend that planning has gone through so much abolishing as to have no presence in New Mexico state government anymore. Anything is a plan now. A list of capital projects is a plan.  As an example, wording in HB 307 that directs the establishment of a state plan that follows best practices for capital budgeting, not planning.

**This also stirred the tea leaves. Gila diversion and fat juicy engineering contracts will raise a big ugly head on this five-year “planning” horizon.

Reprinted with permission from Cocoposts.

Coco is a pen name Harris uses “to honor the spirit of the many feisty females in my family’s past.” She credits them with her quick temper, devotion to place and attraction to strident political debate.