Forget the Last Mile—New Mexicans Need Services all the way to the Kitchen Table

By CAROL MILLER

There is an exciting bill moving through the New Mexico Legislature, Senate Bill 193, Rural Equity Ombud (REO). The bill is bipartisan, co-sponsored by Senator Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, and Senator Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte.

What is an ombud?

Ombud is a Swedish word for Agent, a government official assigned to receive grievances, represent, advocate and actually empowered to resolve grievances.

SB 193 will establish the Rural Equity Ombud in the NM Department of Finance and Administration, Local Government Division. It will be the advocate for the most neglected communities and settlements in New Mexico. The Rural Equity Ombud will be OUR VOICE inside government for the first time.

Senate Bill 193 will create one central place to collect information about the barriers to cash and non-cash resources, whether intentional or unintentional. Collecting the information in a single point of contact will help the Governor and Legislature move New Mexico forward with a more equitable distribution of resources to localities and public-serving organizations.

Why now? Simple Answer, the Pandemic.
The pandemic taught all of us some very harsh lessons very quickly. The instant scrambling to get even the most basics of basics to homes, items like water, food and toilet paper, pointed out gigantic holes in the safety net. With a massive effort by local volunteers, foundations, community organizations, schools, businesses, religious groups, federal, state and local government some of the gaps were bridged. But a dedicated effort for rural equity is needed, and it is needed now.

Just a few of too many examples follow:

Hunger
After years of discussions of food deserts in New Mexico, when everyone but essential workers were ordered to stay home, emergency food distribution systems had to be created overnight. Everyone jumped into action.

Water
Nothing is more basic than water. The urgent public health messages calling for frequent handwashing shone a bright and painful light on the numbers of New Mexico homes without access to clean water or indoor plumbing.

Internet
Schools were ordered to close in-person classes and go online. Boom! It became clear that the digital divide is more like a Grand Canyon of discriminatory internet access across New Mexico. When office and other jobs were switched to remote work internet access impacted workers as well as students, parents and teachers.

The duties included in SB 193 mandate that the Rural Equity Ombud shall:

  • Serve as the single point of contact for agencies and community-serving organizations affected by structural barriers.
  • Provide bill analyses and testimony on legislation that positively or negatively affects rural and frontier communities.
  • Make an annual report to the Governor and Legislature informing executive and legislative decisions affecting rural and frontier communities.

Senate Bill 193 evolved from the Vision Statement action plan which the National Center for Frontier Communities first presented to the Economic and Rural Development Interim Committee in 2017. Legislative support has been strong since then leading to the passage in 2018 of Senate Joint Memorial 2 calling for a Frontier Challenges Working Group. This working group will continue to organize because members understand that sparsely populated and isolated communities across New Mexico face severe economic and social challenges, which they cannot overcome without assistance from federal, state, and/or local government.

In New Mexico, many of these communities are unincorporated and face exceptional barriers to eligibility for public resources. These barriers – such as level of capacity, access to qualified grant writers, and data – impede rather than assist local initiatives.

The provision of critical infrastructure through volunteer leaders is unsustainable. Programs including but not limited to acequias, mutual domestic water associations, firefighting, EMS, and rescue, have become more complex and require skilled, long term and financially compensated leaders.

GOALS

  • Use creative problem solving supported by innovative legislative action and funding to preserve and protect even the smallest communities in the state, settlements and villages.
  • Create new ways to direct investment and re-investment of State funds for infrastructure, community development, and essential services to isolated and neglected villages.
  • Assure the sharing of resources beyond the proverbial last mile right up to the kitchen table. Water, food, internet, and other needs must make it all the way to the homes.

Take Action: It will take all of us to get this critically needed bill passed this year. Emails and calls to Legislators in support of SB 193 are extremely important.

For more information:

Priscilla Lucero, Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments, priscillalucero@gilanet.com

Stacey Cox, National Center for Frontier Communities, stacy.cox@frontierus.org

Carol Miller, Public Health Activist, carolmiller@newmexico.com

 

 

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