Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Trip Jennings – Albuquerque Journal
Legislators hoping to fund senior centers, museums and community centers around the state could be headed for a drought when they return to Santa Fe in January.
By some estimates, lawmakers might have only one-third as much money as they did this year for brick-and-mortar projects and about half of what they spent in 2006.
But one key lawmaker says the projected drought couldn’t come at a better time because there’s already a backlog of $1.3 billion in unspent funds appropriated for an estimated 6,000 projects approved from 1998 to 2006.
That backlog has led Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, to suggest that state lawmakers fund the old projects with money available in 2008 before paying for new ones.
Smith, chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, said he knows he’s fighting an uphill battle.
“Once that appetite is there, it’s tough to trim back,” he said.
Also, 2008 is an election year and many lawmakers “will want to have that special project taken care of,” Smith said.
According to LFC projections, an estimated $370 million will be available for legislators in January to spend on bricks and mortar.
Such projects are often top legislative priorities for lawmakers and communities they represent, and are the clearest example of “bringing home the bacon.”
Next year’s estimate isn’t exactly shabby compared with lean years in the late 1990s, or even earlier this decade, when less than $100 million was sometimes earmarked for the same kind of work.
But the latest estimate is significantly lower than the past two years. The Legislature, with the governor’s consent, this year spread about $1 billion around New Mexico to pay for local and statewide projects and laid out about $750 million in 2006.
The lower projection for next year has to do with the state’s inability to pull as much money from surplus reserves.
Fiscal analysts last year underestimated how well revenues would perform in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2006. As a result, the state’s coffers were brimming with tax revenue and lawmakers and the governor agreed to divert some of the surplus to help pay for brick-and-mortar projects.
That windfall isn’t expected this year, officials said.
The lower amount won’t affect public school projects, which are handled through a different process, officials said.
A backlog of brick-and-mortar projects is nothing new to New Mexico, and officials say the glut can be traced to a confluence of factors.
Lawmakers sometimes partly fund a project but don’t follow up in subsequent years with money to complete it. Other times, lawmakers choose to fund projects local communities don’t want, so the projects languish when local officials don’t set aside matching money.
And the rising cost of materials has on occasion pushed some projects over budget before construction starts.
Robert Apodaca of the Department of Finance and Administration said the backlog isn’t as bad as it looks.
Most of the unspent state money is associated with projects approved in the past three years and the five-year deadline for using the money hasn’t run out, he said.
Still, a few high-profile projects are stuck in the backlog, including $33 million set aside in 2006 for the proposed spaceport in southern New Mexico.
Kelly O’Donnell, deputy secretary of the New Mexico Economic Development Department, said a majority of that money should be spent in coming months.
Meanwhile, Alan Clark, executive director of Albuquerque’s Wheels Museum, said he hopes that $2 million, earmarked last year for the museum, will go toward buying acreage at the Santa Fe railyard property in Barelas.
“We are in the process of attempting to finish the deal on a negotiated price on the land,” Clark said.