Governor orders freeze on capital projects

By Deborah Baker: The Associated Press

SANTA FE — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on Monday ordered a freeze on capital improvement projects around the state, criticizing lawmakers for not cutting such spending during last week’s special session.

“These pork projects should be the first to be cut before we take any action that affects people,” Richardson said in a statement.

Under his order, state agencies and local governments will see their capital outlay projects placed on hold unless they had agreements in place by Oct. 23 — with contractors or engineers, for example.

The freeze will remain in place through the next legislative session, in January, with the goal of saving as much as $150 million, the governor said.

Typically, the Legislature and governor each year approve hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on improvements that range from water systems to senior centers to vans and buses.

But it can take years for the money to be used, and there is currently more than $1 billion unspent.

Canceling dormant projects to free up one-time money was among the possible fixes when lawmakers gathered last week to look for ways to fill a $650 million hole in this year’s $5.5 billion budget.

Rather than deciding on cuts, however, lawmakers agreed to identify $150 million in possible cuts by January and discuss it then.

House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, said the process of determining the status of each project and deciding which should be axed was too complicated and time-consuming for the recent seven-day special session.

“That’s one of the reasons we decided we wouldn’t deal with it until January,” Lujan said Monday.

The freeze could be a “wake-up call” to local governments to move more quickly on projects, Lujan said.

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, said legislative leaders wanted to be sure cuts in capital projects were fair before taking action.

“It appeared to most of us you’d really be hammering the Navajo Nation,” where some projects have been slow to develop, Jennings said.

The Legislature on Friday sent Richardson a deficit reduction package that provides nearly $526 million to fill the budget gap this year, including about $253 million in cuts to state agencies and programs, public schools and colleges.

“Had we bit the bullet, we could have eliminated $150 million and not have schools take such a hit,” said Sen. Eric Griego, D-Albuquerque, who pushed the provision requiring $150 million in cuts to be identified by January.

The pressure from the governor, he said, may help ensure those cuts are actually made.