Money to fight crime added to $6.3 billion budget bill

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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A key Senate committee rolled out changes Saturday to a $6.3 billion spending plan – including more money for prosecution efforts in Albuquerque – that appeared aimed at addressing concerns raised by Gov. Susana Martinez.

New Mexico judges, corrections officers and State Police officers would receive larger salary increases starting in July under amendments the Senate Finance Committee tacked on to a spending plan the House had passed by a decisive margin.

Martinez, the state’s two-term Republican governor, had blasted the original House spending plan as a “soft on crime” budget and also called for it to be revised.

One big change added by the Senate Finance Committee would be an additional $2 million in recurring dollars for Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez’s office.

Torrez has sought a big funding hike – of roughly 30 percent – to keep up with an Albuquerque crime wave, and the revised budget bill would provide most of his request. He had sought a base budget increase of $5.4 million to hire more prosecutors and increase pay levels. The Senate committee’s revised bill would allocate $4.3 million.

A Martinez spokesman said the Governor’s Office was still reviewing the changes made by the Senate Finance Committee, which had spent days dissecting the budget behind closed doors before rolling out its proposed amendments on Saturday.

“The governor has made it clear New Mexicans deserve a budget that focuses on fighting crime, prioritizes education and grows our economy,” Martinez spokesman Larry Behrens said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said after Saturday’s vote that Martinez, who is in her final year as governor, should think twice before vetoing the budget bill.

“I think the governor better scrutinize this slowly before she does something like that,” Smith told reporters. “She might not like (the budget’s contents) if she gets it a second time.”

‘New’ money

Overall, the revised spending plan would use an oil-driven uptick in revenue to boost state spending by nearly $260 million – or roughly 4.1 percent – over current levels.

Specifically, it would authorize $54 million in one-time funding for road projects statewide, $10 million to improve highway rest areas and $10 million to build a new hangar at Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences.

In addition, the Senate Finance Committee’s plan would appropriate $10 million to school districts statewide to help restore some of their cash balances. Lawmakers took more than $40 million from districts statewide last year to help plug a gaping budget hole.

The state’s budget outlook has improved dramatically in recent months, due primarily to a surge in oil production in southeast New Mexico.

But Smith cautioned Saturday that New Mexico still faces revenue uncertainty on several fronts – including volatile energy prices, an uncertain stock market and a coming ruling in a lawsuit over the adequacy of state education funding levels.

“Right now, we feel pretty positive … but our numbers are reflecting a reliance on oil and gas,” Smith said.

The spending plan approved Saturday by the Senate Finance Committee would use most – but not all – of the $292 million in “new” money projected for the fiscal year that starts in July. New money is defined as available revenue above current spending levels.

In all, it would set aside more than $632 million – or roughly 10 percent of state spending – in cash reserves. The state’s reserves were largely depleted last year, after two consecutive years of lower-than-expected revenue collections prompted spending cuts and other budget-balancing maneuvers.

Pay hikes

Most state employees have not received pay raises since 2014, and the spending plan would provide a 2 percent salary bump for rank-and-file workers. 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.

The biggest salary increases would be for State Police and corrections officers, who would get even larger pay raises than under the House-approved plan. Judges would be in line for a 6.5 percent pay raise, as would prosecutors and public defenders.

Meanwhile, with New Mexico poverty rates still among the nation’s highest, the bill also calls for more money to be spent on child-care assistance and early kindergarten programs.

The revised budget plan could be debated on the Senate floor by as soon as Monday, Smith said. If approved, it would then have to go back for final approval in the House before the 30-day legislative session ends Thursday.

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