By Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino, published in the Santa Fe New Mexican

We have a clear win-win opportunity for New Mexican communities that experience the highest levels of air pollution, illness and asthma rates — if only we would listen to the communities themselves. The Environmental Protection Agency recently busted Volkswagen for cheating on diesel emissions standards. The resulting settlement funds are intended to reduce toxic diesel pollution. Communities that are disproportionately impacted are to be especially prioritized. This is a way for us to make progress toward cleaner air with funds that don’t impact our state budget.

The settlement also clearly states that communities that are impacted the most by toxic diesel pollution should have meaningful input into the process of identifying how funds are used to improve their air. Unfortunately, the New Mexico Environment Department gave community members virtually no opportunity to participate in the process of shaping the plan. The only public input opportunities were six public meetings held around the state, two of which were held in the middle of the workday. Families whose health is most impacted by pollution have significant challenges attending in-person meetings due to work obligations, family responsibilities and inadequate public transportation.

In addition, during these meetings, there was no opportunity to submit or give formal comments to help shape the state’s plan. A presentation was given — in English only — and the presenter provided vague answers regarding the Environment Department’s timeline and plans. The Environment Department’s public meetings seem to have been designed simply to check a box rather than meaningfully engage the public.

In sharp contrast, the materials about the settlement on the New Mexico Environment Department website are focused on engaging private companies’ interest in submitting proposals for consideration for use of the funds — a classic “cart before the horse” approach. The department should prioritize the types of proposals to fund only after first engaging the public in a meaningful way about its perception of need.

Though the New Mexico Environment Department opened a public comment period when it recently released its draft mitigation plan, it has failed to express clear expectations for how community ideas will shape proposal priorities.

If the New Mexico Environment Department is serious about engaging New Mexicans in this process, they should share the draft plan beyond their own website and email list serve. In addition, while we applaud the department for publishing the draft plan in both English and Spanish, requests for public input must also be made in English and Spanish in order to engage those who are most directly impacted by poor air quality.

Throughout the eight years of this administration, in her many vetoes and frequent attempts at overturning key environmental protections, we have seen Gov. Susana Martinez put the profits of her corporate campaign donors above the well-being and health of New Mexicans.

By preventing the public from providing adequate input in the creation of the Volkswagen settlement mitigation plan, the priorities for how funds will be spent will by default be given to the companies that submit proposals for fund use over the voices of impacted communities. This is yet another example of how the Martinez administration has put the interests of corporations over the people of New Mexico.

Gov. Susana Martinez and the New Mexico Environment Department must work harder to engage ordinary citizens to provide input into how the settlement funds will be used. The governor frequently states that her administration has been open and transparent, but we have rarely seen it. This may provide one final opportunity for her to put our money where her mouth is.

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino is a state senator from Bernalillo County who has served since 2005.