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Governor signs $6.2 billion budget

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SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez signed off on a $6.2 billion state budget Tuesday, but used her line-item veto power to delete salary increases for New Mexico judges, district attorneys and political appointees.

In all, the Republican governor axed more than $27 million in spending proposed by the Legislature, but left intact salary increases for rank-and-file state workers and teachers of about 3 percent – their largest since 2008.

State Police officers and new starting teachers are among those in line for even larger pay hikes, while higher education workers will get a 1.5 percent salary bump.

“I’m proud that our budget invests targeted dollars where we need them most – to support our teachers, help struggling students, improve parental engagement, lift up low-performing schools and create jobs and diversity in our economy,” Martinez said during a ceremonial bill signing at a Rio Rancho elementary school.

She cited money for health care workforce initiatives and K-12 school programs as highlights of the annual spending plan, which takes effect July 1.

However, a leading Democratic lawmaker criticized Martinez’s line-item vetoes, which amounted to nearly 10 percent of the more than $270 million in proposed new spending.

“It’s disappointing to me to see the erratic action she’s taking on the budget,” said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, the chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee.

While Varela said he was glad Martinez left the pay increases for state employees and teachers intact, he said the spending eliminated by the governor could have helped New Mexicans and boosted the state’s economy.

Specifically, he said $15 million earmarked for schools with at-risk students could have been used to expand a school breakfast program. Martinez vetoed the expenditure, saying the money won’t be needed until changes to the state’s funding formula take effect in 2016.

As for the judicial pay raises, Arthur Pepin, director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said he was disappointed the governor line-item vetoed a proposal to increase judge’s salaries by 8 percent.

“We think it was an appropriate increase for judges that are paid the lowest in the country,” Pepin said, referring to the fact that New Mexico’s 90 district court judges – who are paid about $112,000 annually – lag behind other states in terms of pay.

Martinez, who also vetoed $350,000 for new vehicles for district and magistrate courts statewide, said in her executive message she could not support pay hikes for judges that would have been nearly three times larger, by percentage, than those that teachers will get.

“Though I would have supported a more modest 3 percent increase in pay for judges that would have put them on par with other pay raises in the budget, I cannot support the dramatic 8 percent raise requested in the budget,” Martinez wrote.

The governor last week signed a solvency fix for the cash-strapped judicial retirement system in which both judges and the state contribute an additional 3 percent of a judge’s salaries. She is expected to sign legislation today creating five new judgeships around the state.

Despite the rejection of the salary increases for judges, secretaries and other judicial branch workers will get a 3 percent pay hike. Those increases will be part of an overall budget increase for the judicial branch of roughly 6.7 percent – from $209 million this year to $223 million in the coming year – under the bill signed by Martinez.

That money also could be used to offset the increased contributions by judges to their pension fund, as called for in the solvency fix legislation.

In its final version, the budget for the coming fiscal year will increase state spending by about $252 million – or 4.3 percent – from this year’s level, with public education spending making up more than half of that amount.

Other line-item vetoes included:

• $4 million for a higher education endowment fund. Lawmakers did not pass legislation this year sought by Martinez that would have overhauled the fund.

• $250,000 for a study on the feasibility of the state acquiring land under the ownership of the federal Bureau of Land Management.

• Budget language restricting how certain funding is spent by executive branch agencies and requiring them to file reports with the Legislature.

• Increases in the minimum starting salary for Level 2 and Level 3 teachers. Martinez did sign off on increasing the minimum salary of Level 1, or beginning teachers, from $30,000 to $32,000.

Meanwhile, the governor also endorsed a $228 million package of public works projects Tuesday, which includes $89 million for dams, drinking systems and other water projects.

Martinez used her line-item veto authority to strike down $2.6 million worth of proposed projects, including $125,000 for new Rio Arriba County sheriff’s department vehicles and $70,000 for a telephone system in the Albuquerque-based 2nd Judicial District Court.

Most of the projects in the public works package will be paid for by bonds backed by future state severance tax dollars.

Today is the last day for the governor to sign legislation approved during the final days of this year’s session.

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