Days remaining in session: 22

Shovel-ready: If business groups, trade unions and good government advocates seem to agree on anything this legislative session, it is that New Mexico’s system for funding brick-and-mortar projects needs an overhaul.

But while the Senate Rules Committee voted Friday to advance a proposal intended to improve a process currently characterized as wasteful and opaque, the prospect for reform remains far from certain.

Senate Bill 262 would end the process of annually divvying up a chunk of money equally among lawmakers to pay for projects of their choosing, a method critics say epitomizes pork barrel politics. Nearly $1 billion sits unspent because projects are not ready or not fully funded.

The bill would have a committee of 18 legislators evaluate, rank and recommend projects based on priorities such as meeting critical health or safety needs and creating jobs.

“We need to make sure we have those shovel-ready projects, not $1 billion sitting around,” said the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen.

Other Republican committee members, however, raised concerns the bill would create a less democratic process with a powerful committee chairman holding sway over hundreds of millions of dollars. “There’s going to be a lot of political wheeling and dealing behind the scenes,” said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque.

While the bill advances to the Senate Judiciary Committee, it follows a line of similar reform proposals in recent years that all failed.

Whistleblower: The Senate Public Affairs Committee passed a stripped-down version of Sen. Jacob Candelaria’s bill to change whistleblower protections for government employees. Candelaria removed language from his original version following criticism from New Mexico Ethics Watch and others.

Candelaria’s amended bill would put a new requirement in the law that government employees exhaust certain administrative remedies prior to filing a whistleblower claim in court and would shorten the statute of limitations to 300 days from two years to file such claims.

Candelaria said the bill would “at least give public bodies and whistleblowers the chance to sit down at the table to try to resolve the issues.”

Representatives of state and municipal governments, as well as New Mexico State University, spoke in support of the bill. Grace Phillips, general counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties, testifying as Candelaria’s expert witness, said it is common for counties to face whistleblower claims in employment cases because the current law is vague. Those claims cost taxpayers, Phillips said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association opposed the bill, saying they want to keep strong protections in the law for public employees who file whistleblower claims.

The bill now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Looking ahead: The Santa Fe Indian Center plans a “social justice movement” event from noon to 2 p.m. March 6 at the Capitol that will include music, art demonstrations, Native American dances and food.

Quote of the day: “I was voting yes on everything I don’t understand. I’m reconsidering that.” — Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, during a House Health Committee hearing on House Bill 313, the Surprise Billing Protection Act.

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