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Lawmakers continue secret spending

by Majorie Childress, New Mexico In Depth | April 30, 2021
3 min read
The empty Senate chamber in the New Mexico Roundhouse symbolizes the lack of transparency veiling how our state representatives prioritize the supplemental appropriations under their control. Source: nmlegis.gov

Editor’s Note: This piece was orginally published by New Mexico In Depth.

Government transparency is more than good, it’s essential. The dark corners of government make it difficult for the people (as in, all of us) to exercise our right and our duty to ensure those we elect are governing in our best interest.

In a cash-strapped state like New Mexico, transparency in how elected officials spend public money is even more important.

For that reason, we applaud the publication of a list of how individual lawmakers spent public infrastructure funds under their control. Lawmakers have long resisted making that information public, but finally relented this year after sustained public pressure. We’ll be able to see the so-called capital outlay spending of individual lawmakers from now on. It’s an important step forward and a victory for transparency.

But in the same year state lawmakers finally made their infrastructure spending public, they passed a “supplemental appropriations” bill that’s strikingly similar to a slush fund.

In shorthand they call it the “junior bill” because it’s an add-on to the state budget. Individual lawmakers each got to allocate a slice of millions of dollars for projects and programs around the state. This year, the total was under $10 million, much smaller than in 2019 when lawmakers allocated $60 million through House and Senate junior bills. Still, it’s a lot of money.

With capital outlay, you at least had an idea where requests for capital outlay money were coming from, even if you couldn’t always connect them to funded projects in the final capital outlay bill, because legislative staff posted those requests online.

The junior bill contains individual spending by lawmakers that didn’t go through that public process. And even if the list of lawmakers who made each allocation were subject public records laws, we’d not be able to get it. That’s because, unlike capital outlay, even legislative staff don’t know which lawmaker designated the money for each of the items in the list. Instead, legislative budget and finance committees assembled the allocations into one list and what you see in the bill is all the detail available.

Yes, lawmakers kept secret the identities of who sponsored which junior bill allocation the same year they passed a law requiring disclosure of such information in the capital outlay bill.

The sponsor of the capital outlay transparency measure that finally passed this year, Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, noted the secrecy on Twitter: “Do you know what else should be transparent? ‘Junior’ appropriation allocations.”

The junior bill is full of worthy projects, many are for state agencies for identifiable projects or services. So even if we don’t know who funded them, we can tell where some of the money is headed.  But there are also some very vague allocations to programs and services. And more than a few are specifically for contract services, meaning an outside company or nonprofit will get a job through the funds.

Lawmakers are blunt about keeping their identities secret. A good example of this occurred during the House floor debate on the junior bill.

Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, asked Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, what a $100,000 appropriation for staff in the governor’s office was about (see a video clip here). Once he realized that it was a secret “junior” allocation by another lawmaker, he dropped his line of questioning and the proposed amendment he’d prepared to remove the allocation from the bill. No questions asked.

The citizen lawmakers who work very hard every year to move our state forward deserve a lot of credit for the unpaid work they put in. But let’s acknowledge that perks come with the job. This is one of them. Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, lauded the approach during the floor session, saying it allows each individual lawmaker to focus on important areas of state interest. All good and well. But the public ought to be able to find out how their representatives prioritized the dollars under their control.

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“Growing Independence” Call for Volunteers

T pr C community garden

Saturday, May 15 and Saturday, May 22 from 9-10 a.m., East Fourth Street Community Garden, Truth or Consequences

Growing Independence is a new local not-for-profit organization that provides resources to encourage and enable Sierra Countians to grow their own food and reduce dependence on long-distance supply chains. This Saturday, Growing Independence will be planting “starts” at the Community Garden on East Fourth Street behind the Truth or Consequences Public Library. The following Saturday, deer fence to protect the plantings will be installed. Interested parties are invited to come either or both days to lend a hand with this initiative to restore the community garden as a flourishing source of fresh vegetables to be donated to area food banks and other hunger-fighting programs. Please RSVP to 575-202-8642 if you intend to volunteer.

Sierra County Farmers Market Vendor Meeting

Sierra County Farmer's Market banner

CANCELLED May 15, from 10 a.m.-noon. Ralph Edwards Park, Truth or Consequences.

The vendor meeting May 15th has been CANCELLED. Ralph Edwards Park is not ready. The vendor sign-ups and site allocations will be handled on June 5th at the first market day of season. Vendors who wish to submit their paperwork in advance should contact market manager Colleen IN PERSON.

Colleen Davis
300 E. 4th Avenue
Truth or Consequences
607-227-4137 cell

HAVE YOU SEEN?

Third day on the job, Swingle brings transparency and reality to T or C’s budgeting process, Parts 1 and 2

In addition to contending with a $1.6 million deficit in the fiscal year 2021-2022 draft budget, new city manager Bruce Swingle informed the city commissioners that they must play a lead role in identifying departmental spending priorities and cuts and devising a plan within two years to end the practice of balancing the budget with transfers from utility fees.

Peter A. Lawton (T or C) commented on Part 1: It is nice to see there finally seems to be an adult in charge in our city. Great article!

Barb Dewell (T or C) commented on Part 2: I’m really surprised so much is going on in T or C that the commissioners don’t know anything about. It’s very disappointing. They don’t even appear to want to ask questions. It seems reports are made, Luna makes her comments, no one else has a question or comment, and the issue either goes the way Commissioner Luna wants or it’s tabled, I guess. This isn’t how our city should be run. Thank goodness for City Manager Swingle. I hope he is able to corral all this spending and these very loose approvals and get the city finances back on track. I know most residents are really worried about all this, as I’ve been, and we have high hopes for City Manager Swingle’s leadership.

Ronn Fenn (T or C) commented on Part 2: For a long time I’ve been questioning why this airport is a T or C-funded facility and not a county facility with its location about five miles from the recognized city proper and serving a largely non-resident user base. It and its annual transfer funds to support its operation needs to be investigated. This facility is not and probably never will be an income-producing asset. Its operating costs should be spread throughout the county and not borne solely by T or C’s residents. Pie in the Sky is not likely to land in T or C.

Lydia Dixon (T or C) commented on Part 2: This is great reporting. People would not know most of this if it were not published here. Thanks!

 

 

Welcome, Bruce!

Now that you’ve had a couple days to settle in as city manager, please consider implementing these 10 doable fixes that will make the governance of the City of Truth or Consequences more transparent, responsive and effective.

Reader Joey Perry (T or C) commented: Great suggestions. Here’s one more. Make the meeting agendas more informational. In addition to the ordinance number, include a sentence or two (in plain English) saying what the item is about and why it is on the agenda—e.g., what is the issue? This would help me decide if I want to attend a meeting, or write a letter to the manager or the commissioners, expressing my views ahead of the meeting.

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