A system by the lawmakers and for the lawmakers

Nov 7, 2019

Credit Walt Rubel

COMMENTARY: New Mexico has two ways of distributing money for capital outlay projects, and both were on display here last week.

School building projects are governed by the state Public Schools Capital Outlay Council, which has a rigorous evaluation system to impartially rank projects and take care of those schools that have the greatest need first.

All schools in the state are ranked based on statewide adequacy standards to create the Facilities Assessment Database. School districts seeking capital outlay projects submit a request for funding, which is then scored on a points system based on critical needs.

Those with the greatest needs get taken care of first, regardless of their political clout in Santa Fe.

Last week, the Capital Outlay Council tapped the brakes on plans by the Las Cruces school board to demolish Columbia Elementary School and build a new school on that site. Before kicking in its share for that $30 million project, the council has requested a nine-month study.

I’m not sure what that will mean for the district’s plans, and I sympathize with parents who don’t like the idea of their first-graders going to school each day on a high school campus.

But I don’t disagree with the decision to take a closer look at that situation. And, I have always appreciated the approach taken by the capital outlay council to remove political influence and target state tax dollars to where they are most needed.

The exact opposite approach is taken with all of the other capital outlay money.

Larry Horan, who lobbies for the city of Las Cruces at the Legislature, explained the system to City Council members during a work session last week.

The pool of money for capital outlay projects changes from year to year, and is not guaranteed. In lean years, not only will they have no new projects, they will also claw back money from projects that have been approved but not started.

Once the pool of money is set, it is divided in thirds, with the governor, Senate and House each getting a share. The money for the Senate and the House is then split equally, with each member getting the same amount.

The members are then free to spend that money however they want. They don’t have to coordinate with other local members to address big issues. They don’t even have to coordinate with the local governments they’re bringing the pork home to. Last year the city received funding for projects they didn’t request.

And, all of their funding requests can be kept a secret from the public.

It is in no way designed to objectively evaluate and address the most pressing needs in a state that has lots of them. Rather, it is a system that is by the lawmakers and for the lawmakers. It ensures that even the laziest, least-effective members have a list of projects at the end of the session that they can take credit for.

Past governors Bill Richardson and Susana Martinez both attempted to bring some standards to the process, but with limited success. 

During last week’s work session, the City Council was presented with a wish list of projects totaling more than $55 million. They will pare that down to $25 million to $35 million, then expect to get about half of that, with no way of knowing which projects will be funded, or for how much.

The same process will take place at the county commission and school district. In the past, there has been some attempt to coordinate on big issues like the aquatic center, but that seems to be the exception, not the rule.

Walter Rubel can be reached at