February 19, 2020

House approves big capital outlay bill

Photo Credit: Reinis Traidas cc

The House on Tuesday approved more than a half billion dollars worth of local projects across New Mexico in a unanimous vote with no debate.

That’s because the deals on how much money cities, state agencies or townships get for anything from new baseball fields to physical improvements to police and fire departments — known in state government parlance as capital outlay projects — all happen behind closed doors.

And “because every member has a little food in the trough,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming. “Normally that’s the way it goes if it’s split evenly. The Senate has always been split evenly whether you’re an R or D or an Independent.”

“The Santa Fe delegation gets together and we rank order and see how many of the priorities we can fund,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told reporters Tuesday. “Farmington, Albuquerque does the same thing.”

All told, the bill includes $528.2 million in capital outlay funding, far short of the nearly $1 billion requested for state agency infrastructure projects alone, according to a fiscal impact report of the bill.

The money comes from severance tax bonds, the state’s general fund and other state funds to pay for projects statewide, including $42.2 million for Santa Fe County.

Among the largest Santa Fe County projects are $9 million to beef up the state police facility in Santa Fe; $1 million to improve a state police firing range in Santa Fe; and $1.3 million to replace the Educational Retirement Board headquarters in the city. Lawmakers also approved $1.46 million for New Mexico School for the Arts dormitory and cafeteria upgrades.

Although Santa Fe got millions for many different projects, “I can guarantee you they didn’t get everything they wanted,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe.

On Tuesday night, the Senate unanimously approved a separate capital outlay bill after only several minutes of debate. Senate Bill 207 calls for spending $195.8 million on projects from general obligation bonds, including money for higher education, senior centers and libraries.

Such capital outlay projects, especially in rural areas, are of vital importance for local governments. But good-government groups have long complained that the Legislature does not disclose which lawmakers back which projects, or which ones were supported by the governor.

The projects approved Tuesday by the House included major renovations or upgrades to state courts, the Aging and Long-Term Services Department, state prisons, buildings for the Cultural Affairs Department — including $3 million for cultural affairs sites and monuments across the state — and other state agencies.

Public high schools across the state were among the biggest expense in terms of buildings that fall under state agencies, with $37.1 million in projects across New Mexico approved by the House. The effort to remediate a site that could turn into a giant sinkhole in Carlsbad also will receive $5 million in state funding from the House capital outlay bill.

But much of the funding Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s administration requested from the state was not included in the proposal, the Albuquerque Journal reported. That includes money to build a homeless shelter open seven days a week, $14 million for a “Gateway Center” project and $6 million the city requested for dispatch and records management.

The House capital outlay bill now has to be approved by the Senate before being sent to the Governor’s Office.

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said he could not yet provide a list of the projects supported by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.