COMMENTARY: Sen. Howie Morales deserves the thanks of Grant County residents this legislative session for working to pry loose $13 million from the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) for Grant County water projects. In the process he has shone a bright light on the Gila River diversion process, which has lacked transparency, misused federal money and resulted in a delay in needed infrastructure projects here.
Senate Bill 248 would have appropriated $13 million from the New Mexico unit fund of the giant project to meet the needs of Silver City and local mining communities like Hurley, whose water supply will be cut off in 2018 when its contract with Freeport McMoRan expires.
There are other worthy projects — including watershed restoration — in need of funding as well. The amount is a drop in the bucket of the $66 million federal funds controlled by the ISC and the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity (CAP).
While the state experiences a budget crisis, these federal funds are sitting there, dwindling away as the ISC hires consultants, engineers and others to determine the costs and benefits of a diversion project that is a decade away and could cost as much as $1 billion.
In the past few years most of these contracts have been let behind closed doors, with one of the contractors later hired by the ISC as its chief staffer. So far, no costs or benefits have been definitively identified. And there is yet no coherent plan for the diversion project from the ISC, whose members are appointed, not elected, by the governor, without Senate confirmation.
Why should all this concern a business like mine? My answer may surprise you. It’s not just the damage to our outdoor recreation and tourism industry here, or even the environmental consequences of a dam. It’s the fiscal irresponsibility and poor infrastructure planning that bothers me. Opaque contracting practices and decisions made by those with conflicts of interest often lead to misuse of public funds.
The public deserves decisions made on the basis of objective and scientific information, facts and input from all sectors of the public. This is especially true when large amounts of public money are to be directed to a single project, to the virtual exclusion of all others.
That has not been the case here.
Both businesses and the public at large deserve to know what their water bills will be in the future. Will there be new local taxes absent funding for one of life’s basic needs? Will there be adequate supply? No answers to these questions have been forthcoming. Yet without that information we cannot plan for the future.
Unfortunately the process surrounding the Gila River diversion is a prime example of why New Mexico has a bad reputation for how it makes decisions. Last year, New Mexico was designated by 24/7 Wall Street as the worst-run state in the United States, and it received an overall D- grade from the Center for Public Integrity. On that report card, we received an F for public access to information; an F for executive accountability; and a D for procurement problems. Those specific failures are all evident the Gila River project.
Our bad reputation makes it harder to attract new industries to the state and create the jobs we desperately need, especially in rural areas. And it makes us so eager to jump on a big pot of federal funding that we forget the basics of good decisions in a democratic society.
For me, and many of the businesses in the Partnership for Responsible Business, those basics are that everyone deserves to know the true costs and benefits of a project, everyone can participate in open meetings where taxpayer money is spent, and, finally, that decision-makers should be held accountable for the expenditure — or the lack of expenditure — of our money.
Gordon West is the owner of a local business specializing in forest restoration-related wood products R&D. He is involved with the SW New Mexico Strategic Economic Development Plan, is co-founder of the Grant County Local Investment Opportunity Network, and is a Partnership for Responsible Business board member.