The capital outlay secret

Every year, the Legislature divides up a pot of money known as capital outlay, for one-time expenses such as construction, repair, and purchases of equipment. This year the total has approached a billion dollars.

The process of dividing the money is done behind the scenes, out of public view. Open government advocates have been ranting about this secrecy for the last few years.

Since New Mexico’s capital outlay structure is designed largely to provide bragging rights to legislators, the secrecy seems absurd.

But more absurd, and far more important, is the method used to divide up the money, which has received national recognition for its stupidity.

The process goes like this: legislators submit wish lists of projects to be considered for funding. Each legislator’s list is probably longer than what can realistically be funded. Legislators know some of their requests will be chopped off.

Meanwhile, the finance committees are calculating how much money in total will be available. When the numbers are crunched, the projects selected for final approval are packaged into one or two long and detailed bills. This year the main bill was Senate Bill 280.

You can read every legislator’s original list on the Legislature’s website (

Somewhere between the submission of those lists and the final legislation, decisions are being made about what to fund and what to cut. That’s the big secret. When the final legislation comes out, it’s not clear which legislator’s allocation paid for which projects or how it was decided.

Here is where this lack of transparency gets mixed up with the bigger issue, the formula for dividing the money, which is unwritten and unofficial, but a hallowed New Mexico tradition.

Of all the available capital outlay money, the governor gets one third. One third is divided among the senators and another third among House members. Each legislator gets a few local projects, and sometimes a group of legislators fund something jointly, but the state can’t pool the money to do big ambitious things that would probably be more beneficial in the long run. Reform advocates claim this shortsighted method of dividing the money has been a significant factor in holding New Mexico back. I agree.

Those local projects are not merely pork. They may be repairs to schools or public buildings, upgrades to historic sites, water or infrastructure projects or other items that add value or enhance public safety. Small towns may have no other source of funds.

For some legislators, capital projects are the best way to show their constituents what they’ve been doing and demonstrate tangible accomplishments. Some voters may not appreciate that the real work of the legislative session is the hours of tedious committee hearings studying and voting on more complicated but possibly not very interesting legislative issues.

Back home after the session, legislators are free to claim credit for the projects they funded. Or, whoops, according to legislators’ surprisingly candid comments at one committee hearing, they might fudge a bit and claim credit for a project that got more funding from their colleague in the adjacent district. That’s one reason for keeping the process confidential.

Some projects on the original lists were trivial and got listed only to make a particular constituent happy. It’s easier to cut those projects if nobody is watching.

Another justification is the line item veto – to protect projects from a vindictive governor who can kill them out of spite. However, the secrecy trick didn’t work under former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. As my colleague Sherry Robinson wrote last year, Martinez axed many projects located in the districts of Democrats.

I’m less concerned about the secrecy issue than about the bigger issue of how the money gets divided. The practice of giving every legislator a sliver of the pie is more than a little antiquated for a state struggling to catch up in the 21st century.


Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2019

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