What we can do about climate change

By Denise Fort

Denise is an emerita professor of Law at UNM and a former secretary of the NM Department of Finance and Administration

The Trump presidency will bring us no progress on climate issues. In fact, the administration is working overtime to resurrect coal and nuclear power through federal actions. This puts the burden on states, tribes and pueblos, cities and counties.

New Mexicans have a responsibility, at every level of government, to move forward while the federal government goes backward. To quickly summarize, the control of methane emissions is probably the one action New Mexico can take with the most global effect, and the Sierra Club is all out on our campaign to clean up these emissions.

We are also addressing natural gas, transportation and meat consumption (an ongoing topic at the national and state level). And, as we know, we are still getting most of our electricity from coal, whether from PNM, a municipal utility, or a rural electric co-op. Legislation to increase the requirements of the Renewable Portfolio Standard will be a major focus of our work in the 2019 session, along with legislation to allow community solar (facilities that are owned by entities, rather than by a central utility).

One step that Sierra Club members can pursue immediately is to urge local governments and schools to ask for capital funding for solar installations and efficiency improvements. Every year the legislature provides millions of dollars in severance-tax funding for local and statewide projects, which range from large water projects to senior-citizen centers. County governments often respond to small communities that seek help with road paving or other local priorities. As counties and municipalities look at their energy bills, seeking state funding for solar is a way to offset operational expenses associated with wastewater treatment, jails, fire stations and other county buildings. And it is a way for us, as citizens, to reduce our output of greenhouse gases.

This is a modest but effective path to real progress. If you want to help, call, or better yet, meet with members of the school board, and your elected city and county officials. They are preparing lists of capital projects, to be funded at either the local level, likely through general obligation bonds, or to be given to state legislators as part of the “wish list” for the next legislative session. Staffers can assist in providing estimates of the cost of solarizing specific buildings, which makes a request more appealing (“all politics is local.”) But even if you don’t have costs for specific buildings, it is useful to explain why solar should be investigated.

The other important step is to speak to your legislators, from both the state House and Senate, to explain why you’d like to see capital funding spent on clean energy. Solar installations are a new concept for some, but a perfectly legitimate outlay for capital funding. Of course, this is a political process and we must be respectful of the competing demands on legislators. The compelling point for solar and efficiency investments is that it reduces operating costs for schools and governments, which is in everyone’s interest. Don’t wait too long, because officials are already getting ready for the 2019 session.

There’s plenty of information about capital funding on the Legislative Finance Committee’s website, for those who want to dig deeper. Our severance-tax bonds are issued against revenue from oil and gas, and other mineral taxes. You can get an idea of what was requested by counties in the past here.

The total severance-tax authorization for agencies was about $164 million in the last session. Schools, libraries, senior centers and other popular projects are funded by general obligation bonds (assessed through property taxes after approval by the voters) for a total of another $165 million.

Finally, the Legislature sometimes funds capital items through “nonrecurring revenues,” that is, revenues that were not projected as part of the prior year’s General Fund revenues.

Perhaps this all seems complicated, but it really isn’t. The capital budgeting process is a very local process, from the gathering of requests from local governments to discussions with state legislators. As we seek to reduce greenhouse gases for the sake of our state and humanity, speeding up the transition to solar is a way that we can all help.

What we can do about climate change
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