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Dems, Gov. in showdown over budget

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SANTA FE – The Democrat-controlled Legislature set up a stare-down with Gov. Susana Martinez on Wednesday, signing off on a $5.9 billion budget despite threats from the Republican governor that she will veto the big-ticket bill.

With just two days left in the 60-day legislative session, Martinez blasted Democratic lawmakers for approving a pay raise for state employees while refusing to approve education and tax initiatives she has proposed.

“I’m very disappointed in the lack of compromise by the other party, and by the unbalanced approach to our state budget taken by many lawmakers,” Martinez said in a statement.

The first-term governor also said she is willing to meet leading Democratic legislators halfway on the budget and other high-profile issues, but said compromise must be a “two-way street.”

However, House Democrats pointed out during debate Wednesday that the $5.9 billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year was approved earlier this week on a unanimous vote in the Senate.

They also questioned Republican concerns over education funding in the budget, pointing out that money was earmarked for several academic programs sought by Martinez.

“I feel there’s nothing wrong with this bill,” said Rep. Henry “Kiki” Saavedra, D-Albuquerque, chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

Though they had already approved the legislation, House members had to vote Wednesday on whether to accept changes made in the Senate to the budget bill, which would increase state spending by $246 million – or 4.4 percent – for the coming year.

The final vote of 37-33 to sign off on the Senate amendments was mostly along party lines, with one House Democrat – Rep. Sandra Jeff of Crownpoint – joining the chamber’s 32 House Republicans in voting “no.”

If the House had not agreed with the Senate changes to the spending plan, a conference committee would have been set up to resolve differences between the two versions of the bill.

Instead, the budget bill will be sent to Martinez’s desk. If the governor were to veto the measure, lawmakers would have to start over again in crafting a spending plan for next year, likely in a special legislative session.

House GOP Whip Nate Gentry of Albuquerque cited the special session issue while urging colleagues to oppose concurrence on Wednesday, saying, “I fear … this budget will be vetoed and we’ll be brought back here at enormous expense to the taxpayer.”

In its current form, the budget includes a 1 percent pay raise for all state workers, including teachers, and a 4 percent pay hike for certain law enforcement officials. State employees have not received a base salary increase since 2008.

In addition to increases in other areas, public education spending would rise by roughly $112 million during the coming year. That would bring the state’s total spending on public schools to nearly $2.6 billion.

During Wednesday’s debate, House Republicans criticized the Senate for scrapping a $3 million provision for a Martinez-backed merit pay pilot program that would have been tied to a teacher evaluation system. Instead, the Senate turned it into a $2 million stipend that would be available for experienced teachers who take jobs at low-ranked schools.

The GOP criticisms prompted Democratic Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton of Albuquerque to accuse the Republicans of being “ridiculous.”

Meanwhile, a key point of contention between top-ranking Democratic legislators and the Governor’s Office appears to be a tax package sought by Martinez that is pending in the Senate.

Martinez has criticized the current package as being “gimmicky” and not doing enough to make the state more economically competitive with its neighbors, though Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat, said Wednesday the bill could be tweaked during the session’s final days.

“We’re still talking, and that’s encouraging,” Smith told reporters.

However, he warned that some Senate Democrats are wary of cutting taxes while the state struggles to emerge from an economic downturn.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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