$6.3B bipartisan budget plan advances in House

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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bipartisan budget proposal that would boost pay for police, teachers and other state employees began to take shape Saturday at the Roundhouse.

The $6.32 billion spending plan – a 3.9 percent increase over this year’s budget – is made possible by sharp increases in state revenue, especially from oil production.

It’s expected to hit the House of Representatives for final action on Wednesday, then move over to the Senate.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has veto and line-item veto authority over the budget.

But the spending plan assembled Saturday picked up bipartisan support. Members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted without opposition on the budget piece by piece during a meeting Saturday morning.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the committee, said the proposal includes about $90 million for pay increases – 2 percent raises for all employees and higher raises in hard-to-fill positions, such as prison guards and police officers.

Teachers would get 2.5 percent, Lundstrom said, though there are increases on top of that for teachers who are at the minimum of a certain salary range.

“I feel good about this budget,” Lundstrom said in an interview. “It’s a very good compensation package, and it’s fair.”

And “not one dime comes from a tax increase,” she said.

That was a sticking point last year – when Martinez vetoed tax increases approved by the Legislature.

Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, described Saturday’s budget plan as a good proposal that addresses public safety, roads, education and other services.

“We’ve tried to address the biggest priorities we have,” he said.

The proposed spending increase comes after a budget crisis triggered spending cuts last year and led to a tense standoff between Martinez and the Democratic majorities in the Legislature. New Mexico, at one point, exhausted its reserves and endured damage to its credit rating.

But a rebound in the oil and gas industry – a critical source of revenue for the state – has improved the budget picture.

The plan assembled Saturday would leave the state with reserves of about 10 percent of spending, or roughly the target lawmakers have been shooting for.

The budget proposal discussed Saturday would also:

n Boost spending on the judiciary, including prosecutors and public defenders, by 3.2 percent.

The district attorney’s office in Albuquerque would get at least $3.2 million extra, with some of the money earmarked for reducing a backlog of cases, establishing a “crime strategy data warehouse” and prosecuting three people charged with killing 10-year old Victoria Martens in 2016.

n Raise employee pay across the board by at least 2 percent. There would be enough money to give state police, prison guards, parole officers and district attorney staff raises of about 6.5 percent.

Court personnel, social workers and nurses would get 4.5 percent.

The governor and other statewide elected officials could get 10 percent increases in pay – their first since 2002 – but only if separate legislation is approved.

Most state employees have not received raises since 2014.

n Give about $15 million extra to public schools to expand pre-kindergarten services and “K-3 Plus” programs that extend the school year – strategies that have been shown to boost student achievement when carried out effectively, according to legislative analysts.

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