Updated: December 14, 2020 10:18 PM
Created: December 14, 2020 09:56 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico leaders are considering pulling funding from already-approved projects and redirecting the money to help struggling families.
State lawmakers want to discuss selecting certain capital outlay projects, which are for improvements like new buildings, upgrading aging ones, highway upkeep or new first responder vehicles. The money would either go into the state’s reserves or the unemployment fund.
There’s a lot of unspent money in this specific category—$1.4 billion that has been approved but not spent in the last five years. That’s 75% of the total for the more than 2,644 total funded projects.
Leading the charge is Rep. Patty Lundstrom, a Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
“This money can make a real impact in people’s lives who desperately need it today. It’s a lot of money, and it’s just sitting there, and it’s simply just not moving,” she said. “What we mean is, we want it back. We want it back into the coffers.”
The bulk of these projects were approved in 2020, so the groups overseeing them will likely want more time. But there are many unfinished projects that are older— more than 400 from 2016 through 2018.
“That’s not a good sign. That tells me that those projects were either not ready to go or they’ve been continually reauthorized,” Lundstrom said.
This is not a new situation. New Mexico has a history of struggling to spend money, including delays in the state handing out the funding. But the pandemic adds new urgency.
There are a few reasons why localities and state departments can face delays. It can take a while to get from plan, to shovel-into-dirt, to completion. A lack of contractors can hurt. And some projects are only partially funded at first.
The most idle projects are not all in one place, according to Lundstrom.
“It’s not just one area of the state or state versus local projects, it’s peppered all through the state of New Mexico,” she said.
KOB 4 looked into a few specific state departments that have balances above $20 million and found their projects are not stagnant. In fact, one department has been able to spend money faster during the pandemic because many of its ongoing operations that are closed are no longer getting in the way.
The criteria to decide which projects get pulled is still being hashed out, but staff and committees of lawmakers will evaluate each project, coordinate with the lawmaker that sponsored it, allow for the locality or department to state their case for keeping the funding and then decide its fate.
Between 2009 and 2010, after the recession, the state made similar decisions about funded projects, according to Republican Sen. Steven Neville, who says GOP leaders are on board now too.
“Certainly, if they’re not viable projects, we may have to look at that,” Neville said.
He agrees that helping New Mexicans who are out of work would be a good way to immediately use the money.
“I don’t think we’ll be using politics to decide whether a project is viable or not. It’s going to be whether the project is going to happen over the next couple years,” Neville said.
New Mexico’s unemployment fund is hurting. The state borrowed a lot of money from the federal government just to keep it going.
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