The Money Game: Legislators shell out hundreds of millions, anonymously

Larry Barker

It’s a massive cement slab abandoned in Corrales, and it’s all there is to show for a $1,200,000 state-funded public works project. The site was supposed to be a museum visitor center. Instead, it’s an expensive blunder courtesy of anonymous state legislators.

Lawmakers call it Capital Outlay. Others call it pork. Whatever you call it, it’s the process the Legislature uses to fund public works projects. This year about $600,000,000 will be divvied up among the state’s 112 elected lawmakers. Each House and Senate member doles out their share to projects in their home districts. How does it work? Who is behind the expenditure of tens of millions? That’s a legislative secret.

The Legislature’s Anonymity of Capital Outlay

Where most legislative appropriations undergo public hearings and debate, Capital Outlay money is disbursed behind closed doors. There are no hearings, no debate, and no public input. In fact, lawmakers don’t have to follow legislative rules on how to spend the money because there are no rules.

“Quite frankly some of the (Capital Outlay) requests that are put in are downright embarrassing,” says Senate Finance Chair Senator John Arthur Smith.

“This is taxpayer money, and the taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent. We’re talking tens of millions of dollars,” says Albuquerque State Senator Sander Rue.

“This is one of the clearest examples of what the public should know about,” says former Albuquerque State Representative Jim Dines. “This is a no brainer. It’s public record. And most importantly it’s elected officials spending public money. The public ought to be entitled to know how much their legislator authorizes for a particular project.”

As an example, between 2004 and 2008, a select handful of state legislators authorized $510,000 for a community center in the northern New Mexico Village of Watrous. However, the appropriations were only enough to construct half the building. When the money ran out, the contractor walked away, and the Watrous project was abandoned. Today, forgotten ruins stand on the New Mexico prairie as a half-million-dollar monument to waste. Who’s responsible for this fiasco? According to the Legislative Council Service, that’s confidential.

“This is one of the last vestiges of this sort of secrecy,” says Senator Rue. The Albuquerque legislator is an outspoken critic of the legislative Capital Outlay system.

“At the end of the day, this is taxpayer money. They have a right to know how (Capital Outlay money) is spent, and they have a right to know what their legislators are doing with that,” Senator Rue said.

According to legislative guidelines, Capital Outlay is supposed to be spent on public works projects like highways, fire protection, dams, or water and sewer systems.

“There are billions of dollars of need in New Mexico for public health and safety projects, things like our deteriorating roads, our decaying bridges,” says Fred Nathan, Executive Director of the non-partisan think tank, Think New Mexico. “We have tens of thousands of New Mexicans who still don’t have access to clean drinking water.”

The public works spending is only addressed by the legislature through informal guidelines. There is no statutory language or legislative rules governing Capital Outlay disbursements. The lack of rules opens the door to abuse. “We have a long history, and I think you have a pretty thick book on incidents where that’s happened,” Senator John Arthur Smith says.

Questionable Projects

Because lawmakers make their appropriations anonymously, the public never knows who’s behind the expenditures. If the project is a success, they can take credit for it. If it busts, then they don’t have to accept the blame.

For example, in 2008, a state lawmaker authorized $50,000 for a Las Cruces dog park to include a “dog drinking fountain.”

Last year, an anonymous State Representative authorized $50,000 to create and install a bust of Civil War hero Manuel Chaves in the State Capitol.

In 2016, an unnamed lawmaker approved $20,000 to buy animals for the Clovis Zoo.

Also during the 2016 Regular Session, one legislator designated $10,000 to “purchase, equip, install and frame” sports memorabilia for the Albuquerque Public School Westside Football Stadium.

In 2016, unnamed lawmakers designated $50,000 to “repair and improve, including re-sodding, the driving range” at Albuquerque’s Ladera Municipal Golf Course.

In 2018, another $75,000 in Capital Outlay funding was appropriated to “purchase equipment for and to plan, design, construct, landscape and make site improvements” at the Ladera Golf Course.

During the 2014 legislative session, an anonymous lawmaker earmarked $5,000 for “a barn and stable” in Cuba, New Mexico. No additional information was noted in the appropriation language.

And in 2016, someone in the Roundhouse thought a $30,000 greens mower for the Timberon Golf Course outside Cloudcroft would be an appropriate use of Capital Outlay funds.

Even though the House and Senate provide no oversight over individual Capital Outlay expenditures, the Governor does have the final say. All the appropriations mentioned above were sent to the fourth floor of the State Capital for the Governor’s signature. However, with a stroke of her veto pen, Governor Martinez nixed every project. The $50,000 for that Las Cruces dog park and doggie drinking fountain, was signed into law by Governor Richardson.

“Every dollar we spend on zoo animals is a dollar less for our deteriorating roads, for our decaying bridges, for clean water that so many New Mexicans still don’t have access to,” says Think New Mexico’s Fred Nathan. “New Mexico is actually ranked last of the 50 states by Governing Magazine for the way we allocate capital to infrastructure projects.”

“I’ve had over 20 years of experience in this area of open government,” says former State Representative Jim Dines. “(The legislative Capital Outlay process) was one of the most egregious acts of non-transparency that I had seen.”

Capital Outlay Reform?

Last year, in an effort to reform the legislature’s antiquated Capital Outlay, Senator Rue introduced legislation that would provide openness and accountability in the process. Senator Rue’s measure was stalled in the Senate Finance Committee and did not reach the floor of the Senate for a vote. Senator Rue has re-introduced his bill again in the current legislative session.

“Over the years we’ve done a really good job of creating more open and transparent government,” Senator Rue says. “(The Capital Outlay process) flies in the face of that. It just hangs out there as an exception to that, and it’s time to change it.”

Senate Finance Committee Chair John Arthur Smith says its time to do away with the secrecy in Capital Outlay and open it up to public scrutiny. “I have absolutely no problem with that. Times have changed, and we need to open up that process.”

Santa Fe State Representative Matthew McQueen has introduced a similar Bill in the State House. On Friday, Representative McQueen’s measure passed the House unanimously and was sent to the Senate for consideration.

Speaker of the House Brian Egolf says he is doing what he can as Speaker to bring transparency into the Capital Outlay process. As part of an experiment this session, Speaker Egolf is directing about $80,000,000 in public works appropriation requests undergo public scrutiny before a House Capital Subcommittee.

“There will be hearings on different projects that are seeking funding,” the House Speaker said. “They will be discussed and debated in an open public meeting and then in an open public debate on the floor. Those projects will be clearly identified as to which member or members were advocating for them,” Speaker Egolf says.

KRQE News 13 asked Senator Smith what he would do if a constituent asked him to use Capital Outlay money to fund a $50,000 statue in his district. “On the humorous side, I want to know if the pigeons are in that area. But on the other side I would say absolutely not,” Senator Smith said.

READ: House Bill 262

READ: Senate Bill 144

 
 
 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 

 

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