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Lawmaker: Public school spending a priority

SANTA FE – Influential state Sen. John Arthur Smith testified Wednesday that New Mexico lawmakers have tried to prioritize public school spending even as state revenue levels plummeted in recent years, saying per-pupil spending has remained higher than in many neighboring states.

The longtime lawmaker, a Deming Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said any additional money spent on education could come at the expense of health care, law enforcement or other programs.

“If you don’t have new revenues, then it’s going to have to come from other existing agencies,” Smith testified.

The senator’s comments in a Santa Fe courtroom highlighted New Mexico’s recent budgetary constraints as a landmark case centered on the state’s education spending inched toward its scheduled end date.

District Judge Sarah Singleton will rule after the nine-week trial, which is in its seventh week.

Currently, 44 percent of the state’s $6.1 billion budget goes to public schools – about $2.7 billion for the current fiscal year – and Smith cited recent increases in state spending on pre-kindergarten and other early childhood programs.

However, he also expressed concern about Albuquerque Public Schools and other districts hiring lobbyists and misusing state dollars, saying, “I personally believe there’s adequate money for education in the state of New Mexico – my question is, how do you spend your money?”

The lawsuit, filed by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, claims that New Mexico’s public education funding is inadequate and violates the state Constitution by disproportionately affecting low-income, minority and special education students.

Smith was called to testify by the state and was asked on cross-examination about roughly $3.6 million appropriated by the Legislature to the Public Education Department for non-classroom spending over the past three years – for legal expenses.

He did not dispute the appropriations, and he acknowledged that tax cuts enacted in 2003, 2004 and 2013 have led to reduced state revenue collections.

Smith sponsored a bill during this year’s 60-day legislative session to raise the state’s gas tax in an attempt to increase revenue levels, but the legislation – and other tax hike proposals – stalled due to opposition from Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

However, Smith has also staunchly opposed efforts to take more money out of the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood programs, and he said Wednesday that he views the $16 billion fund as an “endowment fund” for current and future generations.

A Legislative Finance Committee study has estimated that expanding pre-kindergarten programs for all eligible 4-year-olds statewide would cost about $60 million per year.