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House, Senate agree to budget compromise

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers reached final agreement on a $6.3 billion spending plan late Wednesday, sending the bill on to Gov. Susana Martinez.

Approving a balanced budget was legislators’ top task for the 30-day session that ends at noon today, and the spending plan for the fiscal year that starts in July would provide a funding infusion for public schools, Medicaid, and crime-fighting efforts in Albuquerque.

A Martinez spokeswoman suggested the two-term Republican governor would sign the bill but said she may use her line-item veto authority to strike out “wasteful pork” projects in the legislation. The governor has until March 7 to act on bills passed during the final days of this year’s session.

“The governor worked with legislative leaders and is generally pleased by the budget and how it prioritizes public safety, crime, and economic development,” Martinez spokeswoman Emilee Cantrell said.

The budget’s overwhelming approval came after top budget experts in the House and Senate reached a compromise on the spending plan Wednesday. That was prompted by a previous House vote not to go along with Senate changes to the bill.

Under the deal hatched in a rare legislative conference committee, in which appointees from both chambers try to reach agreement on competing versions of legislation, overall spending in the budget bill remained largely unchanged.

Specifically, the compromise calls for $64 million to be spent on road repairs statewide, $4 million for rest areas, $1 million for broadband infrastructure and $5 million for a partial repayment to school districts for money that was taken last year in a budget-balancing maneuver.

“I think it sends a very poor message if you don’t at least make some attempt at restoration,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who described the $41 million taken last year as a “debt” owed to schools.

The compromise would not affect other spending areas in the budget, such as more money for prosecution efforts in Bernalillo County and pay raises for state workers and teachers.

State Police and corrections officers would receive – at 8.5 percent – among the largest salary increases, which Department of Public Safety Secretary Scott Weaver said would help with officer recruitment efforts.

“We’re trying to be competitive with the market,” Weaver said. “Everybody wants good, quality law enforcement officers.”

Overall, the budget would use a recent oil-driven revenue uptick to increase state spending by nearly $260 million – or 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 depleted last year, after two consecutive years of lower-than-expected revenue collections prompted spending cuts and other cost-saving moves.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, described road projects as an important component of the spending plan, saying the spending would help “kick-start” New Mexico’s economy.