Surely a state that has been short of funds for almost a decade would have little trouble spending on long-neglected infrastructure projects now that the money is available. That only makes sense. Only, as with so many things, in New Mexico what is logical does not always follow.
Despite the state’s flush coffers and many pressing needs, a Legislative Finance Committee report issued last week shows that some $1.8 billion in funding appropriated for infrastructure projects remains unspent. That’s money intended to be spent on 3,135 projects.
It’s not quite as bad as it seems, with half of the unspent funding, $961.2 million, just approved this year. However, the fact that $627.4 million approved in earlier legislative sessions remains unspent shows the inefficiencies of the state’s process for spending on bricks and mortar projects — the capital outlay dollars intended to be spent fixing or building roads, repairing buildings and otherwise invested in needs for the long haul.
And those needs are diverse — improving broadband internet, fixing decaying dams, repairs for acequia systems, road projects, schools, senior centers, local government buildings, updating water treatment plants, remodeling airports and other projects that will make living and working in New Mexico easier and more comfortable. The right investments now will pay off in the years to come.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in a paper written last March, called for states to invest in infrastructure, arguing that “state investment in transportation, public buildings, water treatment systems, and other forms of vital infrastructure is key to creating good jobs and promoting full economic recovery.” That’s correct.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham should take information from the LFC report, gather smart lawmakers, Cabinet secretaries and others around, and develop a better system for spending these dollars. Use the months before the next 90-day legislative session in 2021 to reform how capital dollars are spent. These flush days of cash will not last forever, and it is essential that New Mexico invest now to catch up on repairs and new projects to improve life for ordinary people.
The governor has taken one important step already, unveiling a dashboard to help state agencies track projects in real time. By using the new tool, agencies can help local governments out if they see a project falling behind. Ordinary people can see how their dollars are being spent, always important for transparency.
The key to successful spending for capital outlay is to fully fund projects so that money doesn’t run out, say, before the roof of the senior center is finished, as well as making sure — before the dollars are allocated — that the desired project actually is shovel-ready. When money remains unspent, it’s often because money ran out or the work didn’t start as promised.
While greater transparency such as provided by the dashboard is welcome, that will not help a process that is cumbersome and larded with individual pork from lawmakers. Last legislative session, a welcome measure — thank you, Rep. Matthew McQueen, who sponsored the House version — to make individual lawmakers share which capital outlay projects they supported died in the Senate. A similar measure in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Sander Rue, had died earlier.
An opaque process means taxpayers have no way of knowing how their senator or representative wants to spend precious capital outlay dollars; unless, that is, the legislator chooses to share that information. That needs to be fixed. The whole system of lawmakers divvying up infrastructure dollars is unique in the nation. This is not something to brag about; it turns what should be prudent infrastructure investments into pork projects.
The system needs to be overhauled so that dollars go where they are most needed to do the most good for the most people.
Spending those dollars wisely assists the state in performing essential maintenance and building new infrastructure. Wise spending also ensures that communities receive an infusion of cash spent on payroll and supplies. Capital outlay dollars can help spark economic growth, because such spending creates jobs.
The key, of course, is spending wisely.