For the first time in more than four decades, House Bill 55 is poised to make New Mexico’s public infrastructure funding process transparent. House Bill 55 is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Reps. Matthew McQueen (D-Galisteo), Kelly Fajardo (R-Los Lunas) and Natalie Figueroa (D-Albuquerque), Sens. Bill Tallman (D-Albuquerque) and Steven Neville (R-Aztec).
Just about every year since 1977, New Mexico has divided up its available funds for infrastructure projects, commonly known as “capital outlay,” among the governor and all 112 legislators. In 2019, each senator was allocated about $3.6 million and each representative received about $2.1 million.
Every legislator has complete discretion to spend his or her portion of that funding in any way they choose, subject to the veto of the governor — and those choices are made in secret. Once the legislators turn in their confidential lists of capital outlay appropriations, they are rolled into a single massive bill that does not disclose the sponsors of each project.
In 2015, Think New Mexico published a report noting that Governing magazine had repeatedly ranked New Mexico’s infrastructure funding system as one of the worst in the nation. In that report, we recommended several reforms, including making the process much more transparent.
We noted that the capital outlay bill is an outlier in a legislative body that has become more and more transparent in recent years. The Legislature has opened up conference committees to the public and started webcasting committee hearings and House and Senate sessions. Yet capital outlay appropriations continue to be made in the dark.
Unless a legislator chooses to reveal their appropriations, the public will never know which legislator appropriated money for which projects. This is unlike any other bill in the legislative process, which clearly identifies which legislators sponsor it so that the public knows who is responsible.
Two years ago, the House unanimously passed legislation to disclose the sponsors of every capital outlay project. The bill made it through two Senate committees before dying on the Senate floor on the last night of the session.
House Bill 55 is identical to that legislation that came within a handful of votes of passing in 2019. We are hopeful that this year, the Senate will join the House in passing this important reform on a strong bipartisan vote.
Joining Think New Mexico in support of House Bill 55 are organizations including Common Cause New Mexico, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, the League of Women Voters of New Mexico and the American Institute of Architects New Mexico.
Capital outlay dollars belong to the public, not to individual legislators, and every New Mexican has a right to know how legislators are choosing to spend them. Making these spending decisions transparent would increase public trust and make elected officials more accountable to their voters.
We hope you will contact your legislators and encourage them to swiftly pass House Bill 55 to finally make the capital outlay process transparent. You can learn more and contact your legislators and the governor from Think New Mexico’s website at thinknewmexico.org.
(Fred Nathan Jr. is the founder and executive director of Think New Mexico.)