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Teacher pay bill stymied on party-line vote

SANTA FE — On a vote that cut against traditional party positions, Democratic members of a House committee voted today to table a Republican-backed bill increasing New Mexico minimum teacher pay levels.

The legislation divided the state’s two largest teachers unions, and critics argued it represented an unfunded mandate that could lead to disillusionment among veteran educators.

Lingering tension between Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Susana Martinez’s top public education appointee also surfaced, with House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, describing the bill as a “façade.”

“We’re trying to raise the bar for teachers,” countered Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, the bill’s sponsor, who was sitting alongside Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski. “There’s no façade here.”

The legislation, House Bill 310, would increase minimum teacher pay levels in New Mexico to $38,000 per year, up from $34,000. It would also provide $5 million for teacher recruitment efforts and enough money for a 2.5 percent salary increase for all teachers for the fiscal year starting in July.

Those raises are already included in a $6.3 billion budget bill approved by the House. The budget bill also includes funding to raise minimum pay levels for all three categories of teachers under New Mexico’s three-tier system.

However, the funding included in the budget would only allow for starting teacher pay levels to be set at $36,000 annually — not $38,000 — and Democratic opponents of the bill questioned where the money to provide the larger increases would come from.

In a rare split, the bill was opposed by the American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico, who had numerous members attend today’s hearing, but was supported by the National Education Association-New Mexico.

“The bill’s increases to support teacher recruitment would have been important for addressing our severe teacher shortage,” said Charles Goodmacher, NEA’s state-level government and media relations director. “Though it’s not enough to make a major dent, it would be an important statement that our state should move in that direction.”

There is also a Senate bill pending that would enshrine higher minimum teacher pay levels in state law. That measure is sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.