Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
In what might end up being one of her final major acts as New Mexico’s governor, Susana Martinez signed into law Wednesday a $6.3 billion spending plan for the budget year starting in July that will provide the first across-the-board pay raises for state workers and teachers since 2014.
Unlike last year, when she struck down huge chunks of the budget in a move aimed at making lawmakers return to Santa Fe for a special session, Martinez used her line-item veto authority sparingly this time around, cutting about $11.7 million from the bill.
“It’s my pleasure to report I’ll be handing the next governor a balanced budget,” Martinez said during a news conference at a State Police substation in Albuquerque. “The next governor will have it much better than I did when I came in.”
However, the state’s two-term Republican governor did shoot down some budget proposals, including a plan to give $5 million to school districts statewide to help restore some of their cash balances. Lawmakers took more than $40 million from districts last year to help plug a gaping budget hole.
Martinez also axed some proposed reporting requirements for state agencies, prompting claims of retribution from an influential Democratic lawmaker.
“We’re increasingly interested in looking at outcomes,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “I think she wants to be out and bid good riddance to the Legislature.”
Meanwhile, Martinez also vetoed a provision that would have given teachers unions the ability to decide whether to participate in a bonus pay plan for educators who receive top marks on the state’s teacher evaluation system.
One state teachers union leader suggested Wednesday that unions might still be able to block the bonuses – set at $5,000 and $10,000 – by invoking their collective bargaining rights under state law.
“School employees can rest assured our local associations will use negotiations to locally determine whether their district will go forward with this wildly unpopular ‘merit pay’ program that undermines collaboration among school teams,” said Betty Patterson, president of the National Education Association-New Mexico.
The head of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, which represents 54 percent of Albuquerque Public Schools teachers, had previously said the union would not participate.
But top Martinez administration education officials have argued that all exemplary teachers should get the bonuses, as part of a broad effort to keep high-performing educators in the profession.
Martinez had clashed with the Democratic-controlled Legislature in recent years over budgetary matters, but a recent revenue uptick driven by an oil drilling boom in southeastern New Mexico seemed to soften debate during this year’s 30-day session, which ended Feb. 15.
“It doesn’t surprise me she’s on board with what we did” regarding the budget, Smith said Wednesday.
Overall, the bill signed into law Wednesday will increase state spending by about $248 million – or roughly 4 percent – over current levels. It will also set aside more than $636 million – or about 10 percent of state spending – in cash reserves. The reserves were depleted last year, after two straight years of lower-than-expected revenue collections prompted spending cuts and other cost-saving moves.
While some state agencies still have high vacancy rates, this year’s budget bill will provide a funding infusion for public schools, child care assistance programs, Medicaid and crime-fighting efforts in Albuquerque.
“I think the funding (situation) is much better,” Martinez told reporters on Wednesday. “Businesses don’t want to come to a state that can’t balance its budget.”
Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez is in line for one of the biggest bumps, as the budget calls for an additional $4.3 million for the DA’s Office to hire more prosecutors and give pay raises to existing employees, among other expenditures.
Martinez had pushed for the increase during this year’s legislative session, saying the money was needed to help prosecutors tackle a crime wave in the state’s largest city.
In other budget action, Martinez left intact a $1 million special appropriation for guardianship reform, to be administered by the Administrative Office of the Courts. The funds will come from a nearly $3 million surplus at the state Office of Guardianship, which serves low-income people who are appointed guardians.
Backers of separate legislation that Martinez signed last week to increase transparency in the guardian/conservator process and permit more involvement by family members had feared the reforms would be ineffective if funding weren’t included. The reforms take effect July 1.
More than one-third of the increased spending on the budget plan – more than $90 million – will go toward salary increases for state employees and teachers.
Most state workers will get a 2 percent pay raise starting in July, while teachers will get pay hikes of 2.5 percent. Minimum starting teacher pay will also increase from $34,000 to $36,000 per year, starting this fall.
Meanwhile, State Police and corrections officers will be among those – at 8.5 percent – receiving even larger salary increases.
The governor said Wednesday the pay raises will help crack down on crime, as New Mexico recently received the dubious distinction of having the nation’s second-highest violent crime rate.
Martinez also signed off Wednesday on a $170 million package of public works projects that includes $11.2 million to purchase a new State Police helicopter.
However, she line-item vetoed 119 projects totaling $8.1 million from the infrastructure bill, which funds projects by using bonds backed by future severance tax revenue.
Vetoed projects included $259,500 for a robotic dinosaur exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque and $60,000 to install security cameras at the 1st Judicial District courthouse in Santa Fe.
“For the eighth straight year, the capital outlay bill passed by the Legislature contains some of the same pork projects that continue to trouble the state of New Mexico,” Martinez wrote in executive message to lawmakers. “These projects do not create jobs, nor have a lasting impact on our economy.”
Martinez, who took office in 2011, is barred from seeking a third consecutive term in office and will step down at the end of this year.
Journal staff writers Colleen Heild and Shelby Perea contributed to this report.