During the legislative session, representatives Roger Montoya and Gail Armstrong passed House Memorial 33 to create a rural economic opportunity task force, an interim committee whose first meeting was scheduled for Monday.
According to the memorial the committee was created to address the disparities that exist between urban and rural communities in New Mexico by providing an additional way for rural communities to identify the unique problems they face compared to more developed communities.
“When you have 27 reps for Bernalillo County, of course they’re going to get the money,” Montoya said. “It’s not an effective way to govern. The capital outlay system needs some reworking. It’s waiting for that handout, it’s so insulting.”
Montoya said the pandemic really brought to light how many rural communities in New Mexico were hurting for even basic utilities such as running water and that he was concerned that incoming federal relief money might not get used on account of counties and other local governments not having the tools or staff to access funding.
“My honest prediction is a lot of it will not be spent because it can’t be spent it fast enough,” Montoya said.
Montoya’s press secretary Issac Casados said one of the major goals of Montoya’s task force was to identify ways to spend money, so that whenever a federal infrastructure plan is implemented they’d have projects “shovel ready.” The task force is also looking at other sources of income, grants that are available and uses for COVID-19 relief money.
“We really haven’t had a major infrastructure bill since the Roosevelt era, we’re hopeful, what they initially said was $2 to 3 trillion, but the last negotiation was around $1 trillion, will that be restored?” Casados said. “We can’t just rely on the infrastructure we have to get by for another 10 years. What more can we do so we can invest in our communities?”
Broadband Internet access and cell phone connectivity were more modern forms of infrastructure that the representative team identified as needing help, and was one of the most common.
Leaders compile needs
In the buildup to the interim committee meeting Montoya said he had a meeting with local regional mayors, county commissioners and superintendents to create a list of needs. A similar meeting was held to allocate capital outlay.
Montoya is also asking for input from the community. Montoya started hosting town halls throughout his district and one of the things his team was focusing on was identifying economic and infrastructure needs of the communities in his district.
Representative Candie Sweetser, one of the committee co-chairs said that the legislature also put out a request for purchase to hire someone to research the number of communities in the state lacking reliable access to running water, sewer, electricity and broadband infrastructure. This audit will be running parallel to the task force Sweetser said. The analyst will also look at projects that have worked in other states and an analysis of the cost and long term feasibility of maintaining an updated infrastructure system.
The other co-chair Siah Hemphill said they had also been having informal meetings to plan for the session.
“We have a limited amount of time,” Hemphill said. “We have two years to get some stuff done, we really want to focus our efforts and have some positive changes as a result. That contractor is really going to help us assess our infrastructure needs and come up with a plan on critical infrastructure projects.”
The task force is also putting out a hire for a rural equity ombudsman whose job it is to help local communities advocate for federal funds that will be reporting to the task force, Hemphill said.