- Associated Press - Friday, December 11, 2015

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Falling state revenue from the energy sector will limit New Mexico’s efforts to improve public infrastructure next year, legislative analysts warned Friday.

State lawmakers have begun wading through some $1.8 billion in funding requests for public works projects submitted by state and local agencies. State agencies alone made capital spending requests for $648 million ahead of the January legislative session on everything from prison facilities to foster care housing, medical centers, roads and bridges.

Legislative Finance Committee analyst Linda Kehoe told lawmakers they would have about $485 million available to meet all capital requests.

A detailed assessment of which projects merit funding will be made public later this month or in early January. Legislators looked over a confidential draft on Friday.

Rock-bottom crude oil prices in particular are squeezing government revenue.

An estimated $140 million will be available for capital projects from bonds underwritten by severance taxes that are linked closely to oil and natural gas production. Last year’s estimate was $199 million.

Amid the squeeze on spending, government watchdogs want the state to reconsider the way it selects and pays for public works projects. Legislative analysts have identified more than $1 billion in funds that went unspent for projects approved since 2011.

Rep. Larry Larranaga, R-Albuquerque, placed the blame on lawmakers for not rescinding commitments to stalled construction projects.

“We get criticized a lot for a lot of money sitting out there … that’s not being put to work,” he said. “There is an IRS law that says if you don’t put that money to work, you know, you get penalized. But we don’t do that in our own shop. We don’t do anything about it.”

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, also expressed frustration about money stranded by unfinished projects.

“We’re going to pick up the papers after we complete our work in the legislative session,” he said, “and two years down the road we are going to be looking at some of these (building) additions that haven’t even been started yet.”

The state expects to be able to tap $187 million from general obligation bonds linked to property values - without raising taxes - to finance the next round of infrastructure projects.

Voters will have the final say on any capital projects funded through general obligation bonds in the November 2016 general election. Lawmakers will consider as many as five ballot measures for senior centers, libraries, college facilities, public schools and prison facilities.

For bond measures approved by voters, funds become available at the start of 2017.

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