Think New Mexico and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government scored a huge win for the taxpaying public last week with the passage of House Bill 55. The bill makes public all capital outlay spending that flows like the Amazon River from the Roundhouse.
This is what we all know as pork spending. It’s the primary method by which most senators and representatives get re-elected, by sending money to those projects where the most votes lie. Now everyone can know who sent money to which project and exactly how much.
Each year every legislator receives between $1.5 and $2 million, depending on the budget. Each legislator divides that money and applies it to projects as he or she sees fit. No one except the individual legislators know who funded what. This makes it simple for legislators to tell constituents either a: I funded your project; b: I helped fund your project or c: I didn’t have enough money to fund your project. There is no way to prove or disprove funding because it’s been kept secret.
The governor has House Bill 55 on her desk to sign right now. This would make all projects’ funds and funders public record. This is a step in the right direction but taxpayers deserve much better. They deserve to have their tax dollars spent correctly, responsibly and to the best effect on most of the population.
Think New Mexico did an exhaustive study in 2015, the first year it began the fight to make public state infrastructure projects. In the 22 pages of facts, figures, charts and testimonials the great staff at Think outlined a solid argument for doing away with what has been commonly called the Christmas Tree Bill.
Encapsulated, the argument Think made was:
• unneeded projects get funded for political purposes;
• badly needed large projects such as roads and bridges take a back seat to small local pet projects that don’t contribute to health and safety;
• funding for projects gets moved to “similar” projects or rolled over to another fiscal year. In some cases the projects were abandoned, or changed into a different need, such as a culvert instead of a small bridge. Other projects were never accomplished.
• funding sits fallow and is never spent. In 2015 Think showed 1,337 projects were funded and unfinished for a total of $497 million appropriated for those projects but $312 million remained unspent. Surely that has not gotten better in the last six years. Think’s chart of historic spending shows it grows worse annually.
• other states have come up with a much more reasonable way to fund infrastructure. Committees are formed to decide funding based on need, citizen impact and cost. Committee members come from different political parties and may include bean counters, engineers, highway department representatives or a state treasurer or budget office representative. Again, common sense over political payola.
According to the Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, 32 percent of New Mexico’s roads are in poor condition. That's not news to any of us. Our roads are horrendous.
Each motorist pays $767 per year in costs due to driving on roads in need of repair. There are 219 high hazard dams. Four bills aimed at addressing failing dams in this legislative session died in committee.
Unfortunately, New Mexico is a long way from taking responsibility for taxpayer money. Roundhouse denizens love the spending side of the balance sheet but are foreigners to the revenue side.
House Bill 55 is a good start and will make legislators own their decisions. We hope it’s a move toward fiscal responsibility and a better way to improve the state’s terrible infrastructure, which goes mostly ignored every legislative session.