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Committee OKs raises for teachers, state employees

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A $6.3 billion budget plan that would ramp up New Mexico state spending after several cash-lean years – and provide pay raises for state workers and teachers – is headed to the House floor.

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted 17-1 Tuesday in favor of the spending plan, which would increase overall state spending by about $249 million over current levels – or roughly 4.1 percent.

However, Gov. Susana Martinez’s office described the bill as “soft on crime” and suggested it could face tough scrutiny in its current form.

Martinez, a former prosecutor who is serving her final year in office, last year axed all funding for higher education out of the Legislature’s budget bill, forcing lawmakers to return to Santa Fe for a special session in which the funding was restored.

This year’s brewing battle is over funding for Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez’s office.

Torrez, a Democrat who was elected in 2016, requested a $5.4 million increase to hire more prosecutors as Albuquerque grapples with soaring crime rates. He also asked for additional funding for salary increases and some one-time expenses.

The budget bill approved Tuesday would provide only $1.2 million for additional prosecutors. It also includes $2.3 million for salary increases and one-time expenditures, such as $600,000 for prosecuting the three people charged with killing 10-year old Victoria Martens in 2016.

“It’s the largest increase to a single DA’s office that I can recall,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, a member of the House finance committee. “It’s a tremendous step in the right direction.”

However, a senior Martinez administration official indicated the overall funding was insufficient in the governor’s eyes, saying, “If this soft-on-crime budget makes it to the governor’s desk, legislators will not be happy about what happens and will have to explain to voters why they support revolving-door justice.”

‘New’ money

Due primarily to a recent surge in oil production in southeastern New Mexico, lawmakers have an estimated $292 million in “new” money – or money in excess of current spending levels – available for spending in the budget year that starts in July.

The budget plan approved Monday in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee calls for more than 10 percent of state spending – or nearly $643 million – to be set aside in cash reserves.

It would also authorize several one-time expenditures, including $80 million for road projects around New Mexico and $10 million for a new hangar at Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences.

“Being able to do one-time things like providing money for roads stimulates the economy,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, the committee’s chairwoman.

While Roundhouse budget votes have frequently been politically divisive in recent years, Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, cast the lone “no” vote in Tuesday’s hearing.

After the vote was taken, he said he’s concerned the spending plan does not do enough to backfill school districts’ cash reserves, which were drawn down last year in a budget-balancing maneuver as lawmakers grappled with a massive budget hole.

“We are killing small schools slowly,” Townsend told the Journal. “The state has been blessed with a bounty of revenue this year, and we’re not sharing it with the children of this state.”

Pay raises

Most state employees have not received a pay raise since 2014, and the spending plan endorsed Tuesday would provide about $90 million in total compensation increases.

That includes a 2 percent salary increase for rank-and-file state workers and even larger pay bumps for State Police, corrections officers and judicial branch employees.

Teachers would get a 2.5 percent pay raise, and starting teacher pay would go from $34,000 to $36,000 a year. Minimum pay levels for more experienced teachers would be raised similarly.

In addition, the budget bill calls for $5 million to provide merit pay bonuses – of $5,0000 or $10,000 – to teachers who receive top marks on their annual evaluations.

The full House is expected to vote on the budget bill by as soon as today, which marks midpoint of the current 30-day session.

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