House approves $6.3B budget on 65-3 vote

House Minority Floor Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, talks with Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee chair, before the budget for the next fiscal year passes out of the House. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – More money, fewer problems.

That’s largely been the case so far at the Roundhouse, at least politically speaking, when it comes to passing a $6.3 billion spending bill for the fiscal year that starts in July.

In contrast to recent years when the budget got bogged down in partisan disagreements, the House voted 65-3 Wednesday to pass the bill, which would use an oil-driven uptick in revenue to boost state spending by about $249 million – or roughly 4.1 percent – over current levels.

The bill now moves on to the Senate, where it will likely be further scrutinized with two weeks left in the 30-day legislative session.

“I think this is a great piece of bipartisan legislation,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. “We’ve been able to stay away from that toxic Washington, D.C., arena in our committee.”

However, there could be trouble on the horizon, as a spokeswoman for Gov. Susana Martinez described the budget as being full of “pork projects” and underfunding law enforcement agencies and the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office.

“The governor is very concerned about the budget in its current form, and hopes lawmakers will address its glaring deficiencies before sending it to her desk,” Martinez spokeswoman Emilee Cantrell said.

Among other things, the budget plan endorsed Wednesday would authorize $80 million in onetime funding for road projects statewide.

It also calls for more money for child care assistance and early kindergarten programs but would set aside nearly $643 million – more than 10 percent of state spending – in cash reserves.

Several lawmakers questioned whether that would be enough of a buffer, given the state’s reliance on the oil and natural gas industries and the historic volatility of those revenue sources.

Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, also questioned why more money was not being provided to replenish school district reserves, which were raided by lawmakers last year in a budget-balancing maneuver.

He was one of the three House members who voted against the bill – Reps. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo, and Ricky Little, R-Chaparral, were the others.

Meanwhile, most state employees have not received pay raises since 2014, and the spending plan endorsed Wednesday would provide a 2 percent salary bump for rank-and-file workers and even larger increases for State Police, corrections officers and judicial branch employees.

Starting teacher pay would also go up – from $34,000 to $36,000 a year – and all educators would get a 2.5 percent salary increase.

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