Ute Water Project bill to receive second House vote

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom New Mexico

An omnibus bill including authorization for the $432 million Ute Water Project is receiving another run through the House of Representatives.

Senate Bill 22, also known as the Bingaman lands bill, contains 160 projects — including the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System. It passed the Senate on a 73-21 vote in January.

But it fell four votes short on a roll call vote in the House of Representatives two weeks ago, 282-144 on March 11.

Maria Najera, a spokesperson for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said the bill was the victim of procedure and is unchanged going into a second vote.

“There’s no real change in it,” Najera said. “The bills are the same. It’s just a matter of how it was brought.”

Bingaman, who chairs the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, explained the matter in an address to radio reporters.

“They got into a procedural disagreement there,” Bingaman said, “and added some language and then tried to pass it on what they call a suspension calendar, which means they needed two-thirds of the members of the House voting (286 votes on March 11) to pass it. They came a couple of votes short on that basis.”

A suspension calendar is generally used to pass bills not judged to be controversial. Debate is limited to 40 minutes, and no amendments can be offered.

To balance the suspension in rules, passage requires votes from two-thirds of voting members, instead of a simple “50 percent plus one” majority.

Najera said the bill could pass as early as Wednesday, and only requires a simple majority to pass. She sees no reason to believe the omnibus bill won’t pass, based on its previous vote count.

“These bills have bipartisan support,” Najera said. “That’s why they’re bundled together.”

All three of New Mexico’s representatives voted for the bill, which got support from 248 Democrats and 34 Republicans. Three Democrats joined 141 Republicans in voting against it.

Rep. Ben Lujan, D-N.M., introduced legislation for only the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System in January, but as a backup plan in case the omnibus bill was slowed down.

The bill would allow the Bureau of Reclamation to spend up to $327 million to assist the authority in building the Ute Water Pipeline.

When completed, water from the Ute Reservoir in Quay County would be piped to the authority’s entities — currently Clovis, Portales, Texico, Grady, Elida, Melrose, and Curry and Roosevelt Counties.

The project would be funded 75 percent federally, 15 percent by the state and 10 percent by authority members. The projected cost of the Ute pipeline is $432 million, and authority members estimate it would take 10 to 12 years to complete.

If the bill is passed, it will move on to a conference committee if differences exist between the House and Senate versions. The measure then goes to President Barack Obama’s desk. Should it be signed, Bingaman said the next step is securing funding.

“The appropriations discussions start right away,” Bingaman said. “The appropriation subcommittees are currently beginning to do their hearings to prepare appropriation bills for the new fiscal year, which begins in October.”

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The omnibus lands bill is S.22, listed as roll call vote No. 117.