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Lawmakers ‘play chicken’ with infrastructure funding, highway safety at stake

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PLAYING POLITICS WITH HIGHWAY SAFETY: $264 million in infrastructure upgrades and other critical projects derailed in game of legislative “chicken”

By Brigette Russell │ Watchdog.org

SANTA FE, N.M. — State legislators adjourned this month without funding critical public works projects, including a senior center infested with mold, a veterans home that is out of compliance with the fire code and a treacherous highway with the most fatalities in the state.

Senate Bill 159, which would have appropriated $264 million for infrastructure repairs and upgrades, stimulating construction jobs throughout a state that has been the slowest in the region to recover from the recession, died in the tumultuous last moments of the session after nearly two months of partisan infighting.

The Senate did not send the capital outlay bill to the House until four days before the end of the 60-day session, and the House sent back an amended version to the Senate only 15 minutes before the session adjourned. It was never debated because Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, was filibustering to prevent the passage of another bill.

“That’s the game of chicken we play,” said Sen. Carolos Cisneros, D-Questa, sponsor of the bill and vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, where details of the bill were hashed out.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, was even more blunt. “The Senate Democrats were using extortion to try to get the governor to increase the gasoline tax. How many people are going to die this year because that road doesn’t get fixed? Political games are going to cost people lives.”

The bill that would have funded road repairs and other projects around the state bogged down in what Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, called “the general dysfunctionality of the legislative system in New Mexico.”

Every year, bills make their way sluggishly through both chambers until a mad rush the last week of session when committees meet until the wee hours and a logjam of bills rushes toward the House and Senate floors.

This year, that meant a deadly stretch of Highway 82 from Artesia to Lovington would not be repaired. “On one end there’s a lot of rollovers because there’s only a foot and a half of shoulder and then it drops off,” said Rep. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, who represents the region. “The flow of traffic stops for a semi to turn and if other drivers aren’t watching they rear-end the truck.”

Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, told Watchdog yesterday that there had been four more fatalities on that highway in just the past few days.

Beyond safety, the highway affects the economy, as its two lanes carry heavy oilfield traffic, and there are 140 exits in 63 miles. “If the roads don’t get repaired, it makes it harder for oil and gas to take their product to market, which affects the economy, because oil and gas is 33 percent of the tax base,” Gallegos said.

“You’ve got a 20-year life on a road, and if you haven’t been taking care of it, it becomes worse and worse and then you have to get down into the subgrade and rebuild that infrastructure, which is more expensive,” said Gallegos, who works in the road construction firm Ramirez and Sons, a fifth generation family-owned company that does asphalt repair, but doesn’t deal with state contracts.

Gov. Susana Martinez and House Republicans wanted road projects funded with severance tax bonds, while Senate Democrats wanted them paid for out of the general fund. Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, introduced a bill to increase the gas tax to pay for road projects.

When the House Ways and Means Committee finally got SB159, it stripped out $45 million in funding for higher education, senior centers and other community projects and replaced it with road projects.

The WAMC amendment wasn’t finished until late the night before the session was to adjourn at noon. When the full House was to vote on the bill on the last morning, Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, the minority leader, introduced an amendment to undo the WAMC amendments. Debate on Egolf’s amendment took three hours, and the Republican-majority House predictably voted it down, sending the WAMC version to the Senate only 15 minutes before adjournment. It was never heard on the Senate floor.

Asked why it took 56 days for the Senate to get the bill to the House, Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, chairman of WAMC, said, “I think they purposefully stalled.”

Cisneros blames House Republicans, telling Watchdog that SFC gave members a deadline to submit funding requests for their districts, and everyone turned theirs in except the House Republicans. “They stopped coming in and negotiating about capital outlay mid-session.”

Party leaders from both parties and both chambers met with committee chairs and vice chairs five or six times to discuss capital outlay midway through the session, but Harper said every meeting ended without the issue over road spending being resolved.

“The process is at fault. Discussion broke down. Everybody’s at fault here,” said Cisneros.

“This really is a good time to evaluate that process,” Harper said. “No other state has individual members deciding how to spend capital outlay in their districts. It leads to inefficiencies to say the least. We have all these partially funded projects, and they’re just stalled.”

“It’s certainly not efficient,” said State Auditor Tim Keller, “but it is arguably much more equal with respect to distribution than other systems in the country. From an auditor’s perspective, it doesn’t work very well, but from a former state legislator’s perspective it’s a very fair way to divide dollars.” Keller served in the state Senate from 2009 to 2014.

“The solution is to push through previously authorized projects that are just languishing,” Keller said. His office issued a report earlier this month detailing $4.5 billion in state money that has been allocated to more than 700 funds but not yet spent. About $2.3 billion of those dollars are for infrastructure construction. Watchdog reported in January about one of those projects.

“We could put together a task force, a czar, to prioritize and cut through red tape. A lot of these dollars are waiting for permits, matching funding, mountains of forms to fill out. Cutting the red tape and prioritizing would unleash hundreds of millions of dollars in NM.”

Asked if such a task force might not be just more bureaucracy, adding to the problem rather than solving it, Keller said, “You can do this out of a small office as we did with ARRA funding, a knowledgeable senior person and a couple of staffers. It could be done out of the governor’s office.”

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Brigette Russell, formally served as a staff reporter for Watchdog.org.