Columns appear here a week after they're sent to newspaper subscribers.

Sherry Robinson photo




© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES   1-10-22
Picking up the garbage
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
            New Mexico is branding itself as a destination state for outdoor recreation. We’ve had an Outdoor Recreation Division since 2019 in the Economic Development Department. We’ve had two state outdoor recreation conferences; another one is being planned. We’re investing the state’s prestige in this genuinely exciting initiative, taking advantage of our state’s great natural beauty and diverse environments.
            Good thing somebody’s thinking about picking up the garbage.
            In the special session that just ended, lawmakers allocated $10 million to the Clean-up New Mexico Roadway Beautification Program, quadrupling the Department of Transportation’s clean-up budget.
            There’s plenty of cleaning to do. One DOT cleanup in October netted 8.5 tons of trash tossed or accidentally blown onto New Mexico roads. Another cleanup event last June netted 18 tons. That’s our garbage – yours and mine. Actually, not mine. I wait for a trash can.
            And there’s a new worrisome element mixed into our trash: discarded surgical masks. Masks kill fish and wildlife. Numerous sources worldwide have found animals try to eat them, and their digestive systems get clogged. Fish get trapped in the elastic. Just what we need to demonstrate our bona fides as a nature-loving state.
            I’m not aware that anyone is counting how many disposable masks are being used in New Mexico, how many are being disposed of properly and how many are literally in the wind. I can tell you that in one recent walk on my local school grounds, I picked up 17 in 20 minutes. (I then put the glove into a sanitizer. Thanks for asking).  
            New Mexicans are not alone in being sloppy with our garbage. One organization rates South Carolina and Nevada as the worst states for littering but puts New Mexico in the top ten.
            Americans on average generate roughly 4.5 pounds of trash per person per day, or  1,642.5 pounds a year. Some of it goes into landfills, where it becomes useless but, we hope, is also rendered harmless. Some of it goes into the recycling stream, where we want to believe it will be made into new useful things, but it might not because recycling is not quite living up to its early promise. The rest goes wherever we drop it.
             Reports indicate New Mexico is putting less waste in our landfills than in previous years. That’s supposed to be good news, and maybe it is. It could mean we’re producing less waste, or recycling more of the waste we produce. Or that we are dumping more waste out in the arroyos where nobody’s watching.
             According to the Environment New Mexico Research & Policy Center, “Recycling rates in New Mexico reveal one of the most wasteful states in the nation. At 19 percent, the statewide rate falls almost 16 points below the national average 34.7 percent … In other words, 81 percent of the waste in New Mexico goes to landfills, incinerators, or spills into the environment.”
             As with so many of New Mexico’s endeavors, we are chasing our tails as we invite the world to explore our magnificent outdoors and then spend millions of dollars cleaning before visitors have a chance to see it. As a pattern, it’s a little like our bold economic development ventures that crash against our embarrassingly low literacy rate.
            On the website of the Outdoor Recreation Division is an enthusiastic statement from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham:
            “The Outdoor Recreation Division's success is dependent on collaboration, with New Mexican businesses, nonprofits, and partner state and federal agencies. Through this network, we aim to engage all New Mexicans as stewards of the state's incredible natural resources.”
Stewards. Can we try a little harder to remember that?
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     1/10/22
State shapes plan for rural infrastructure priorities and funding 
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            Rural infrastructure is in line for an energizing infusion of money from the state and federal government, and it’s not likely to be misspent or wasted. I just finished reading the Rural Infrastructure Needs Study. Apparently, we won’t just be throwing money at our problems.
            The state Legislative Council Services commissioned the study last year, and it was completed last month by the nonprofit Pivotal New Mexico, the engineering firm Bohannan Huston, UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, and the Grant Plant.
            The 162-page report examines broadband, water, and electricity in our rural areas  – what’s there, what’s needed, funding sources and how to chase them, and what other states have done. Maps pinpoint the degree of need. (The term “infrastructure” usually includes roads, but that’s not part of the report.)
            The report should be must reading for public officials and involved citizens. See Rural Infrastructure Study – Pivotal New Mexico (pivotalnm.org).
            Cost estimates for broadband range from $2 billion to $5 billion; for water, $1.4 billion, and for wastewater, $350 million to $800 million. But paying for projects may pose less of a challenge than the ability to chase money.
            Small communities – and at times even the state – don’t have the expertise to apply for grants, loans, and/or federal funding. Funding sources often require in-depth documentation of need and proposed use of the money, and the process is competitive. The best applications win.
            For example, the ballyhooed federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, recently passed, dangles $55 billion for clean water, $65 billion for broadband, and $65 billion for electric grid updates and clean energy.
            Formulas will direct some of this money to New Mexico, but much will be awarded in competition with other states. New Mexico and its jurisdictions must be ready with plans and priorities. Broadband alone requires a five-year action plan with stated investment priorities.
            But communities and the state often lack good, detailed data. (I’ve heard this same complaint from economic developers.) This includes internet access and speeds, number and location of households without electricity, or water supply and usage.
            A community might plunge into some quick and dirty data collection in pursuit of funding, but this doesn’t approach the broad tracking that other states do routinely.
            “Small communities report feeling overwhelmed and unaware of the full range of resources available to them,” said the report. “Many jurisdictions would benefit from technical assistance” with planning, engineering, data collection, design, budgeting and timelines.
            In interviews, researchers heard these complaints: Funding for planning is too limited and too restrictive. Loans aren’t a real solution to small communities or utilities with little debt capacity. Same with matching funds; little towns can’t come up with the match. They need flexibility in timetables. They’d like an engineer and planner on call.
            The report also singled out our old friend, the state anti-donation clause, for its “chilling effect on a wide range of infrastructure projects.”
            The anti-donation clause of the state Constitution forbids spending state money to benefit private entities. When I was writing regularly about economic and business development, I railed against the clause in columns like this because it was outdated and obstructive.
            The report points out that, while other states have similar prohibitions, ours is the strictest and least flexible and “hinders public-private partnerships in infrastructure projects.” In Colorado, if the Legislature finds a project is for the public good, the anti-donation clause doesn’t apply.
            The study recommends action steps: Write a five-year broadband plan. Fund the state’s Councils of Government to hire technical support. Improve statewide data collection. Revise the anti-donation clause.
            One takeaway is that state government hasn’t overlooked rural areas. The other is we need to up our game.

 
© 2022 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES    1/3/22
Torrent of infrastructure money meets chasm of need
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            With so much money sloshing around when legislators meet in January, we might expect to have almost enough to make serious dents in New Mexico’s infrastructure needs. “Might expect” being the operative words. Experience teaches that with this much money, there’s great opportunity for mischief.
            In my decades of Roundhouse watching, I can’t remember a time when so many dollars were headed our way.
            Consider that in the recent special session, lawmakers designated $478 million in federal stimulus money for road projects, broadband and airport improvements, among other things, and left $724 million unspent for the coming 30-day session. The federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will deliver $3.7 billion to New Mexico – $2.8 billion in the next five years – for roads, bridges, airports, public transportation, broadband, and water projects. Just in fiscal 2022 the state will get $486.5 million for bridges and roads.
            It sounds like a torrent of funding, but it would fill a chasm of need. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 30% of the state’s roads are in poor condition, 6.5% of bridges are structurally deficient, 219 dams are considered high hazard, and we need $1.4 billion in drinking water projects.
            We have bridges in New Mexico that school buses aren’t allowed to cross.
            For broadband alone, the federal infrastructure bill has some $100 million to start with. Another $43 billion will be divvied up among the states. The stimulus bill has $123 million for broadband, and in this year’s regular legislative session, lawmakers approved $133 million in state money for broadband.
            The Legislative Finance Committee has estimated that about one in five public school students don’t have internet access. It could cost $1 billion to $5 billion to connect most or all of the state’s unserved areas, but for the first time it’s within reach.
            To come back down to earth, we’re coping with worker and supply shortages. How much of this is realistically doable? As Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, said, “We’re talking about a lot of money here. I wonder if we’re putting money in areas (where) we just can’t spend it.”
             And where there’s this much money, there’s the prospect for fraud and theft. So I was somewhat relieved that the governor in November appointed an infrastructure czar. Martin Chavez, former state senator and three-term Albuquerque mayor, understands the needs of local governments. A moderate, business-friendly Democrat, he led a successful campaign to preserve Kirtland Air Force Base and started a graffiti patrol.
            What you might not know about Chavez is he was more focused on getting things done than on whether people liked him. The city desperately needed more river crossings, but 20 years of bickering had settled nothing. Chavez worried that his town was becoming two Albuquerques – one on the west side and one on the east side of the Rio Grande.
            A proposed bridge required taking down an old cottonwood near the river, and the tree had become a line in the sand between environmentalists and bridge supporters. At 4 a.m. city crews showed up and cut down the tree in the right of way, launching the needed bridge. Progressives are still irked.
             His official title is “infrastructure advisor,” and he’s assigned to the Governor’s Office. He will work with communities “to determine priorities for billions of dollars in federal infrastructure funding,” according to a news release. Two other appointed advisors are Mike Hamman, the state’s water advisor, and Matt Schmit, broadband advisor.
            What I like about these appointments is the accountability. Money won’t just disappear into the marsh of state government. Somebody will be tracking every dollar, I hope, and see that spending accomplishes what it’s supposed to.