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Governor polls local mayors about infrastructure priorities

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is polling local politicians on their infrastructure priorities as the state decides how to dispense federal pandemic relief money and spend from a multibillion-dollar budget surplus. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press file)

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s Democratic governor is polling local politicians about their infrastructure priorities as the state decides how to dispense federal pandemic relief money and spend from a multibillion-dollar budget surplus.

Breaking with past routines, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has delayed annual infrastructure recommendations to hold an online summit Friday with mayors from across the state about their priorities on construction projects ranging from high-speed internet to senior centers, water systems and roads. A separate event for county governments is scheduled in the following days.

The state still has $600 million in federal pandemic relief to assign from its $1.7 billion allotment last year, a major budget surplus and money that it borrows routinely to finance public works projects.

Friday’s deliberations among politicians are a prelude to decisions about how to spend New Mexico’s share of a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package signed by President Joe Biden in November. That legislation will send billions of dollars to states and localities across the country over the next decade. Remarks are scheduled at Friday’s summit from Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, according to organizers at the New Mexico Municipal League.

Martin Chavez, the former mayor of Albuquerque and appointed adviser to the governor on infrastructure, said public works projects can move to the front of the line for consideration if they already are well researched, planned or designed.

“There are a number of priorities. One, of course – that old term ‘shovel ready,’” he told a panel of legislators Tuesday. “Maybe it’s a project that’s in design, maybe it’s an expansion of the airport, that they’ve already designed but don’t have the funds. Those projects will be given priority.”

The Legislature’s lead budget writers are recommending $500 million for transportation projects, including $350 million for roads. Additionally, they are calling for more than a half-billion dollars in new spending that will be paid off gradually through bonds to underwrite projects including veterans’ home improvements and construction of a public safety command center, a new psychiatric hospital for children at the University of New Mexico and new facilities at the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said local voices are critical in the assessment of infrastructure needs.

“We are committed to making sure that every dollar is spent on meaningful projects,” Sackett said in an email.

New Mexico could become the destination of federal infrastructure funds set aside to boost carbon capture technologies and efforts to forge less environmentally damaging sources of electricity through the use of hydrogen.

Lujan Grisham is backing legislation to help jump-start hydrogen production from natural gas in her state, a process that generates harmful greenhouse gases but might one day be harnessed to provide environmental benefits. A bill has not yet been introduced.