ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) — They stand as powerful symbols of monumental waste while New Mexico’s crumbling infrastructure remains neglected and underfunded.
Legislators in Santa Fe call it capital outlay, though it’s better known in layman’s terms as “pork barrel” projects. In recent years, those projects have included a drinking fountain for dogs, an indoor golf course and an expensive bronze statue.
“It is shocking to see … hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars going to these projects,” said Gov. Susana Martinez.
The capital outlay process is supposed to allow New Mexico’s 112 lawmakers to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars a year to address critical needs in local communities. But unlike other legislative expenditures, there are no rules governing how the money is spent. The capital projects are funded at the whim of each individual lawmaker and doesn’t go through any public hearings or debate.
“There’s a belief, and I think it’s a false belief, that individuals believe they will not get re-elected if they don’t bring home the pork,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee.
Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, said his fellow lawmakers know something needs to be done about the system so that taxpayer money is better managed and allocated.
“The bad things about this system – there’s no accountability,” Neville said. “We don’t have a way of vetting all these projects and deciding which ones ought to be funded.”
For example, in 2007, Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, hit up taxpayers for $10,000 to remodel the football field press box at tiny Escalante High School in Tierra Amarilla. At the same time, the Village of Chama down the road was struggling to come up with $9.5 million to revamp its sewer system.
In the same year, Sen. Cynthia Nava, D-Las Cruces, used public funds to buy $16,000 worth of mariachi jackets, pants, skirts, straw hats and bowties for Santa Theresa High School. Today, however, the uniforms are in storage because the school’s mariachi teacher retired. The next door community of Sunland Park needs $7.5 million to remove arsenic from its drinking water.
Then there’s the group of Eddy County lawmakers who, also in 2007, billed taxpayers $100,000 for a bigger-than-life bronze sculpture of Jim White, who discovered Carlsbad Caverns.
That group included Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal, Sen. Vernon Asbill, R-Carlsbad, Rep. William Gray, R-Artesia and former Rep. John Heaton, D-Carlsbad. The expenditure took place at the same time the city of Carlsbad is trying to scrape together more than $26 million to repair its water lines.
Another group of lawmakers – this time including Sen. Rod Adair, R-Roswell, and former representatives Keith Gardner, R-Roswell, and Dan Foley, R-Roswell – spent nearly $500,000 in 2007 on artificial turf at the Roswell school football stadium, a riding mower for the baseball field and a John Deere tractor for the athletic field. Meanwhile, Roswell officials across town are attempting to find $4.6 million for storm drain and road construction.
Finally, while Las Cruces is scrambling to fund a wastewater treatment facility, state Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D-Dona Ana, spent $50,000 on a dog park that included a dog drinking fountain.
“Well, I guess you have to have a place for dogs to drink water from,” Garcia said. “I can’t envision that the dogs will go drink water from fountains for human beings.”
Gov. Martinez, who is from the Las Cruces area, took issue with that prime piece of pork.
“I think it’s disgusting,” she said. “I’m a dog lover and I want the best for my pets. But I don’t use taxpayer dollars to turn around and provide a nice park with a drinking fountain for dogs. There isn’t enough water pressure to put out a fire should that occur in that part of the county, and instead we have a drinking fountain for dogs. Where are our priorities?”
And it’s not just dog parks and statues. The taxpayer expenditures for golf alone in 2007 ran into the millions. They included:
Nearly $1 million for golf course improvements at the University of New Mexico, including $600,000 to renovate UNM’s South course clubhouse, $144,000 for golf ball-hitting tees and $200,000 for an indoor golf facility where golfers can tee off rain or shine.
$250,000 for improvements to the Los Alamos public golf course.
A new pro shop at New Mexico Highlands University golf course in Las Vegas that cost $200,000.
Improvements worth $100,000 at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology’s course in Socorro.
Renovations to the clubhouse at the Grants municipal golf course worth $75,000.
A $60,000 practice area at New Mexico State University’s course in Las Cruces.
“The taxpayer funds universities in this state better than most states,” Sen. Smith said. “When we talk about being on the bottom of something, we’re on the very top, in the top 10, of how we fund universities. And then they turn around and ask for … capital outlay requests for golf courses.”
Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, said that every dollar that goes for tractors and golf courses is money that can’t be used for community health and safety.
“This is not the way to operate government,” said Campos, who is trying to reform New Mexico’s pork barrel system. “We do not have the resources to address over $8 billion worth of infrastructure needs at the state level, and at the local level and through our public schools and through our higher educational system.”
Smith said most of the state’s critical needs could be met if it weren’t for pork.
“(Those needs) probably would be adequately funded if we didn’t have the abuse of the existing system,” he said.
However, while individual lawmakers have proposed reforms to the capital outlay process, the Legislature as a whole has consistently rejected all proposals to change the way pork barrel money is allocated and spent.
“The rhetoric has to stop,” Campos said. “The change has to occur. And we need to move forward if we are going to prosper as a state.”
"These dollars do not belong to the legislature,” Governor Martinez adds. “(The money belongs) to the hard working people in New Mexico. And they insist that our roads be repaired. They insist that the dams be repaired. They're wanting to make sure that we have water and waste water treatment facilities that will be enhanced so that we can bring economic development."
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New Mexico is located in the southwestern region of the U.S. Inhabited by Native American populations for many centuries, New Mexico has also been part of Imperial Spain, part of Mexico, and a U.S. territory.