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Editorial: Lawmaker rebuts claims NM schools underfunded

Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, stated the painfully obvious last week when he testified in court that increasing spending on education would require cuts in other areas, such as health care, law enforcement, higher education or any other of the numerous programs New Mexicans rely on.

When cutting up a pie, there’s a finite amount to go around. And that amount gets smaller when a key contributor to state coffers – the oil and gas industry – is seeing lower prices for products and thus lower profits.

Smith was called by the state to testify in a lawsuit in which the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund claim that New Mexico’s public education funding is inadequate and violates the state Constitution by disproportionately affecting low-income, minority and special-education students.

The Deming Democrat said that, despite plummeting oil prices and the impact on state revenues, per-pupil spending here remains relatively high. In fact, New Mexico ranks 29th in the nation for per-pupil spending and allocates about $2.7 billion annually for K-12 education.

Smith used the opportunity to question the state’s largest school district – Albuquerque Public Schools, which educates about 25 percent of the state’s students – about its spending priorities, including lobbyists.

“I personally believe there’s adequate money for education in the state of New Mexico,” Smith told the court. “My question is, how do you spend your money?”

If it’s not already evident, state revenues are essentially flat for the short term, at least until oil and gas prices rebound or the state miraculously manages to curb its fiscal dependence on that and government – neither of which is likely to occur anytime soon.

So if the size of the state’s fiscal pie remains the same, legislators have only one choice – how to slice it.

The school-financing case, entering the eighth of what is expected to be a nine-week trial, might influence public education’s slice, leaving legislators with even harder choices regarding health care, public safety and infrastructure than they have now.

But, as Smith pointed out, every organization – education included – needs to take a careful look at its spending and be able to justify every expenditure, every program, every day. If it can’t, or won’t, lawmakers will at least know where to start carving.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.