NM can get its billions in infrastructure dollars up and running

Peter Campos

The availability of hundreds of millions of excess state dollars next year, coupled with literally billions of federal funds flowing into New Mexico over the next five years, means New Mexico has an unprecedented opportunity to meet its infrastructure needs. We could make sure everyone in New Mexico has access to clean drinking water. We could fix roads and hospitals. We could provide safe places for our children to play outside and safe indoor places for our seniors to spend their days. Carefully planned use of these dollars could transform our communities.

But careful planning is the key. For decades, New Mexico has struggled to implement a capital expenditure allocation system that works for New Mexicans, that gets the dollars where they’re needed most and actually improves lives. Instead, we have a system where hundreds of millions of dollars – and sometimes billions – of dollars in infrastructure routinely sit idle for years, sometimes because the project was underfunded, sometimes because the project was a low priority for the community it was intended for had to serve, sometimes for other reasons.

My interest in improving the investment process dates back to my first term in office in 1991. Realizing the need for long-term care for those who cannot afford it, I applied for $800,000 to build the Meadows Nursing Home and the Legislature approved this behavioral health institute in Las Vegas. This money was never spent and went back to the state. Only this year – more than 30 years later – with new money and no little tenacity and perseverance, a scaled down version of the project was completed.

My interest in improving the system of distributing money essential to the well-being of New Mexicans and their communities has not waned over the past several years. In fact, I have proposed numerous reforms, including a comprehensive approach to changing the system in 2021.

Although policymakers have seen incremental improvements, core problems remain. Deficits in project funding, inadequate planning, shifting municipal priorities, legal and technical issues, and convoluted funding streams still keep projects on their way, and many critical needs are neglected: dams, reservoirs, watersheds, and municipal water and sewage systems continue to become obsolete operated repair. Rural New Mexicans don’t have the technology and communications systems — not even reliable cell service — they need to access today’s telemedicine options or the basic healthcare facilities needed to be self-sufficient close to where they live to supply.

Bridges, roads, decent prisons—the list of unmet needs is long, and competition for capital dollars can be fierce. Inefficiencies in the system mean that those needs are not being met even when the money is available. As of the start of this fiscal year, New Mexico has over $3.8 billion in outstanding capital expenditures on over 4,600 active projects, in large part due to historically large investments in capital projects at a time when progress has been slowed by supply chain disruptions and labor shortages.

But after years of incremental changes, big improvements are on the horizon. The Legislative Finance Committee now has a Capital Spending Subcommittee reviewing the process, and committee staff have already identified a number of approaches that could move capital and projects faster through the process. These include: prioritized funding for existing but incomplete projects, improved review of local investment applications, and a stand-alone infrastructure office to support the Legislature with statewide needs analysis and oversight, and with adequate staff to provide local projects with administrative and technical support, federal coordination, and other external sources of funding and assistance otherwise ensure that capital expenditures are actually making meaningful improvements in our communities.

Done properly, a coordinated, professional approach to legislative investment projects will improve the quality of life in our state and contribute to the well-being of New Mexico residents and our economy.