By Scott Wyland, The Santa Fe New Mexican
While some bills have proved highly contentious this legislative session, one is sailing through with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Legislation that would establish a $50 million state fund to help draw federal money for infrastructure, water and clean energy projects received unanimous yes votes in two committees and on the House floor.
House Bill 177 is now headed to the Senate, where advocates hope to restore it to its original $100 million before it reaches the finish line.
The fund would help the state tap federal dollars through the Inflation Reduction Act, the infrastructure law and other programs, making the money more available to disadvantaged communities that otherwise would be unable to get it, the bill’s advocates say.
Estimates vary on how much of a magnet the state matching fund would be. Some say it could draw as much as $8 in federal money for every $1 in state contributions.
“There are a lot of great opportunities for New Mexico communities to get new resources for economic development and infrastructure and other things,” said Michael Leon Guerrero, economic sustainability adviser at the Center for Civic Policy. “The problem is there are a number of obstacles … particularly rural and tribal communities to be able to access that money.”
These smaller communities typically lack the money to chip in for matching federal funds, Leon Guerrero said. And if they secure federal funding, the project’s costs often rise significantly before the money arrives, he said.
Another hurdle is the communities don’t have the means to hire people to apply for the federal grants and see the process through, Leon Guerrero said.
“HB 177 addresses all three of those issues,” he said.
Money coming from the two federal funding streams could be used for clean energy, roads, bridges, water systems, broadband and other improvements. The wide array of possible infrastructure upgrades is what gives the proposed fund its bipartisan appeal, said Liliana Castillo, a spokeswoman for a consortium of nonprofits backing the bill.
Three Democrats and two Republicans sponsored the measure.
In last year’s legislative session, lawmakers approved a $10 million matching fund, of which which $7.5 million yielded $80 million in federal funding, Leon Guerrero said.
There’s a growing need for upgrades to water and wastewater systems, he said. Communities also have expressed interest in electric vehicle charging stations, electric school buses and energy efficient projects, all of which qualify for federal money, he said.
An important change in this year’s proposed fund would be removing the deadline for using the money after it’s received, Leon Guerrero said. That differs from last year’s program that required projects to get going by a certain time or the funding would be lost, he said.
Rebecca Roose, the state’s senior infrastructure adviser, said a matching fund like this is vital in enabling the state to vie for federal grants, which are highly competitive.
It will be important for the fund to be restored to $100 million to cover the many infrastructure needs, she said.
“We know the demand for these match dollars is going to be really high,” Roose said. “We want to keep reinforcing the message to the Legislature that $50 million is not enough.”