Keeping the public business out in the open is often not the preferred way of doing business in the New Mexico Legislature. From the days of smoke-filled rooms and secret deals made at the Bull Ring after hours, to the more recent reluctance of lawmakers to allow webcasting of proceedings, too many legislators seem to kick and scream all the way into the sunlight.
A bill with the potential to be a bright spot in 2019 — House Bill 262, which would make the process of funding infrastructure transparent — actually made its way to the full Senate, only to be pulled late Saturday by sponsors. As is the habit in the Senate, the bill was being gutted so as to lose its potency. It likely won’t get to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Of course, constituents could call senators before noon on Saturday to ask for its revival. Just think: an ethics bill left alone by senators seemingly afraid to have citizens know what is going on.
Why is this important? New Mexico will spend a billion dollars on capital outlay after the session concludes. Yet taxpayers — whose money this is — don’t know how projects were selected or why.
Under the pulled legislation, the Legislative Council Service would have been required to publish on the legislative website a “searchable list of capital projects that passed the Legislature and the names of legislators or the governor who allocated a portion of the capital outlay appropriation or bond authorization for each project.” The bill called for this to start in 2020.
Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, and Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, have been united in trying to open up the capital outlay process. Rue’s bill was shot down, but McQueen’s House bill — other sponsors are Reps. Natalie Figueroa and Joy Garratt — still could become law. And it should.
As with so many things in New Mexico, our system of allowing individual lawmakers to decide who gets what is unique. Making the process more transparent would hold lawmakers accountable for decisions, leading to better spending decisions for the state. Think New Mexico, the nonprofit that has pushed this reform, is right to demand public scrutiny on how infrastructure dollars are being spent.
In 2019, the list of projects released shows that Santa Fe County will be receiving almost $90 million in capital funds, going to things as diverse as thousands of dollars in playground equipment for assorted public schools to money for ditch repairs for acequia associations to improvements at Santa Fe Community College. There are projects for various tribes in the county, as well as city, county, school and state initiatives. Some $33 million, for example, is going to the Department of Public Safety evidence, records and crime lab, phases one and two.
The projects seem, for the most part, worthwhile, but that doesn’t mean taxpayers don’t deserve to know who backed what project and how that decision was reached. Citizens deserve information about how their money is being spent. That’s not happening in New Mexico — yet.