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Legislative panel wants raises for state workers

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With New Mexico finally emerging from its economic doldrums, a key legislative committee will recommend salary increases in the coming year for all state workers and teachers, the panel’s chairwoman said Tuesday.

However, that could put the Democratic-controlled Legislature on a collision course – once again – with Gov. Susana Martinez, who has opposed across-the-board pay hikes in past years and will soon be entering her final year as governor.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the Legislative Finance Committee, said Tuesday that the panel will recommend 1.5 percent pay raises for state employees and teachers for the budget year starting in July 2018, although state agencies would be able to decide how to dole out the raises.

“They could use it as they see fit,” Lundstrom told the Journal.

She mentioned the proposed raises during a New Mexico Tax Research Institute conference in Albuquerque, saying that in addition to salary hikes the committee would also propose using $199 million in projected “new” money to bolster spending on Medicaid, early childhood programs and the state’s court system.

The roughly 17,000 rank-and-file state employees have not received pay raises since 2014 – although targeted salary increases have been approved more recently for State Police officers and corrections officers – as lawmakers have enacted spending cuts, drawn down the state’s cash reserves and used other cost-saving measures in response to several years of lower-than-expected revenue collections.

The average annual salary for a rank-and-file state employee was $45,324 as of this year, according to a recent State Personnel Office report. Nearly half of the workers make less than $40,000 per year.

For an employee making the average salary, a 1.5 percent pay raise would amount to a bump of roughly $680 a year.

Dan Secrist, executive vice president of the local Communications Workers of America union, said an across-the-board salary increase is long overdue.

“Every year since 2008 we’ve had to do more with less,” Secrist said, citing high vacancy and turnover rates in many state agencies. “You’ve got a whole state full of really tired, overworked and disgruntled employees.”

Meanwhile, the cost of providing 1.5 percent pay raises for state workers and teachers in the coming fiscal year would be about $47.9 million, Lundstrom said.

That would represent roughly one-fourth of the $199 million in “new” money – or dollars in excess of the current $6.1 billion budget – that’s projected to be available, based on recent state revenue estimates.

Lundstrom acknowledged there are many pressing needs across state government, saying, “We drained a lot of budgets last year – we took away a lot of funding that we have to replace.”

Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, said he’s not opposed to giving salary increases to state employees. He also acknowledged most workers have gone years without a raise.

But he questioned whether the proposal would end up being largely symbolic, saying, “To me, quite honestly, a 1 percent compensation increase is not a lot of money.”

The Legislative Finance Committee, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, will release its official budget recommendation next month. The governor will also unveil her own spending plan.

A Martinez spokesman declined to comment Tuesday on the proposed salary increases for state workers and teachers.

Approving a new budget for the coming year will be lawmakers’ top task in the coming 30-day legislative session, which begins Jan. 16.