Senate passes $6.3 billion budget; House rejects changes

David Abbey, left, director of the Legislative Finance Committee, and Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, try to answer questions about the budget bill during debate on the Senate floor Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With a 30-day legislative session nearing its end, the Senate signed off Tuesday on a $6.3 billion spending plan that would use a recent revenue uptick to increase state funding for public schools, Medicaid and crime-fighting efforts, especially in the Albuquerque area.

However, after the Senate voted 40-2 to approve the budget bill, the House voted not to accept the Senate’s changes to the legislation. That means appointees from each chamber will meet – likely today – in a conference committee to try to reach an agreement.

“Surely, we can find a 50-yard line” in talks, Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said in an interview late Tuesday.

With the state’s budget outlook finally improving after a lengthy revenue downturn, much of this year’s Roundhouse debate has centered on how much funding for law enforcement and prosecutors should be increased, especially in the state’s largest city.

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said on the Senate floor that his car has been burglarized twice in the past six months and called a funding infusion for crime-fighting efforts a positive step.

“In Albuquerque alone, we have had some severe crime all over the city,” Padilla said.

Before Tuesday’s vote, a Senate committee made several revisions to the budget bill originally approved 65-3 by the House, including adding $2 million more recurring money for Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez’s office.

Those changes appeared aimed at addressing concerns raised by Gov. Susana Martinez and others, as the two-term GOP governor had described the House spending plan as “soft on crime.”

Smith said during Tuesday’s debate that the Governor’s Office was included in recent budget talks.

“We didn’t give them everything they wanted, but they were included in the process,” Smith said.

However, some senators from outside the Albuquerque area expressed misgivings about the big budget hike for prosecutors in the state’s largest city.

“Albuquerque may be making it difficult for the outlying district attorneys to find prosecutors,” said Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo.

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

The only two senators to cast “no” votes on the spending bill were Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, and William Sharer, R-Farmington. Candelaria said the legislation didn’t go far enough in addressing Albuquerque’s needs.

Pay raises

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

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

“Those are the people that are taking care of our kids,” said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, in extolling the pay raises.

However, the biggest salary increases would be for State Police and corrections officers, who would get even larger pay raises – 8.5 percent – than under the House-approved plan. Judges would be in line for 6.5 percent pay raises, as would prosecutors and public defenders.

Overall, the pay raises would represent more than one-third of the state spending increase – or roughly $90 million of the nearly $260 million in additional appropriations.

‘New’ money

The spending plan approved Tuesday would use the newfound state revenue – primarily from a spike in oil production in southeastern New Mexico – to boost state spending by about 4.1 percent over current levels.

It would also set aside more than $632 million — – or roughly 10 percent of state spending – in cash reserves. The reserves were drawn down last year, after two consecutive years of lower-than-expected revenue collections prompted spending cuts and other belt-tightening maneuvers.

But Smith cautioned Tuesday that buffer might not be as high as it should be, given historically volatile energy prices and a coming ruling in a lawsuit over state education funding that could force the state to allocate millions of more dollars for K-12 programs.

To limit year-over-year spending growth, the spending plan approved Tuesday is full of one-time expenditures.

That includes $54 million 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.

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.

Several senators sounded a note of relief during Tuesday’s debate that they were close to accomplishing their top task for the 30-day legislative session and, in the process, being able to restore funding to some cash-strapped programs.

“This is the reason we’re up here – to pass a budget” said Sen. Clemente “Meme” Sanchez, D-Grants.

Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Dan McKay contributed to this report.

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