Funding system leaves billions unspent


The capital outlay bill passed by the Legislature this year provides just under $290 million for 136 projects throughout the state, including $20 million for steam tunnel and electrical infrastructure upgrades at New Mexico State University.

NMSU will also get $10 million for facility construction in the Creative Media Institute and $1.575 million for road improvements on the Gadsden campus. Other local funding includes $3.083 million for construction of a new senior center on the East Mesa, $310,000 for the Munson Senior Center and $344,000 for the Anthony Senior Center.

All 136 projects will be funded without any kind of ranking system to determine what our top priorities are, or vetting process to ensure that the projects are needed and wanted by community leaders. Many projects will get partial funding, meaning they will either take years to complete or stall out before the finish.

The Legislature also reauthorized funding this year for 253 projects that were approved in past sessions but not completed on time. They include construction of a local district courthouse, a new dam on the lower Spring Canyon arroyo, a new reproductive health care clinic in Doña Ana County and a multipurpose trail connection in the county.

How many of these projects will actually be completed remains to be seen, but the track record isn’t good.

According to reporting by Source New Mexico from a November 2023 meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee, the state has appropriated nearly $5 billion for 4,900 projects that has not been spent. Of the 766 active projects with an appropriation of $1 million or more, 415 are on schedule, 170 are behind schedule and 181 have had no activity at all, meaning local governments have not taken the steps needed to access the money.

Our state has two very different ways for funding public projects. Because education is more tightly regulated under the constitution, funding for schools goes through a rigorous evaluation process to ensure that money goes to those with the greatest needs and fewest resources.

Funding for everything else in the state is essentially one big pie, and each lawmaker can do pretty much whatever they want with their slice.

Too often that slice isn’t enough to complete the project. And so lawmakers either have to find other local legislators willing to give up their slice, or keep coming back year after year, hoping to reach the finish someday.

Our capital outlay system stems from legislation passed in 1961 to fund dam construction based on bonds that would be paid back through severance taxes. All projects required their own bill until 1977, when the Senate merged 27 different bills into one.

That bill passed unanimously because there was something in it for everybody. It’s for that same reason the system has been so hard to reform. It works great for legislators, who are each guaranteed to bring home a little pork every year. This year’s bill passed 67-0 in the House and 39-0 in the Senate.

The state has at least made the process more transparent in recent years. The online capital outlay dashboard now allows the public to track all of the projects that are stuck in the pipeline. What it shows is how many needs are still unmet.

Walter Rubel can be reached at

Opinion, Rubel Column, Funding system