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Journal Poll: Education tops list for ‘new’ money

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – When it comes to spending an unprecedented revenue windfall, New Mexico lawmakers should prioritize public schools and teacher salaries, a new Journal Poll found.

Sixty-one percent of proven general election voters surveyed cited education as the best use of $1.2 billion in “new” money that’s projected to be available in the budget year that starts in July 2019.

New money is defined as projected incoming revenue in excess of the state’s current $6.3 billion budget.

“It’s not surprising that a majority of likely New Mexico voters would like to see these extra funds spent on education,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc., which conducted the poll.

In part, that could be because of a high-profile lawsuit that recently challenged whether New Mexico spends enough money to ensure public school students – and specifically Native American, Hispanic and other at-risk students – receive an “adequate” education.

A state district judge ruled in July that the state was failing to meet that requirement and ordered the Legislature to come up with a plan by early next year. The administration of outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez has said it plans to appeal the ruling.

New Mexico already spends nearly half its budget – about 44 percent – on K-12 schools, and lawmakers approved a bill this year to increase minimum starting teacher pay to $36,000 annually. It had been previously been set at $34,000 a year.

But the state has continued to perform poorly in national education rankings, and a 2015 study found that about half of new teachers in New Mexico ended up leaving the profession within five years.

In addition, New Mexico’s high school graduation rate hit a record high of 71 percent for 2016, but that figure was still the nation’s second-worst, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

Crime, public works

Although education easily outpaced other spending areas, crime-fighting efforts and public works projects also received broad support as potential funding targets from the state’s revenue boom.

Twenty percent of likely voters surveyed said New Mexico lawmakers should spend the additional funds on hiring more law enforcement officers or other crime-focused programs, while 16 percent mentioned building or repairing roads, bridges and highways statewide. In addition, 13 percent mentioned water-related infrastructure projects, such as dams and sewer systems.

Voters in the Albuquerque area and north-central New Mexico were more likely to mention law enforcement, while those in the state’s energy-rich eastside were more likely to prioritize infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, voters surveyed in the poll also cited numerous other potential uses for the state’s revenue windfall: improving the economy, homelessness, the state’s public retirement systems, early childhood education and mental health services each received multiple mentions.

About 6 percent of likely voters surveyed said state lawmakers should not spend the new money and should instead save it – voters ages 65 and older were especially likely to give that answer – and about 3 percent said the funds should be distributed to taxpayers via rebate checks.

One voter even suggested that lawmakers should use the $1.2 billion in new money to plant more trees in forests around the state.

The state’s unprecedented revenue growth is based primarily on taxes and royalties associated with oil drilling in southeastern New Mexico, a historically volatile revenue source.

The surge in oil drilling in the Permian Basin has made New Mexico the third-highest crude oil producing state – behind only Texas and North Dakota – and is expected to continue for at least the next several years, according to legislative and executive economists.

Poll methods

The Journal Poll asked voters how the state should spend the extra money projected for the coming budget year. It allowed voters to give up to three responses, but did not prompt them to give more than one.

The poll is based on a scientific sample of 423 registered voters who cast ballots in the 2014 and 2016 general elections and said they were very likely to vote again in this year’s election.

The poll was conducted September 7-13 by professional interviewers, with multiple callbacks to households that did not initially answer the phone. The voter sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.8 percentage points. The margin of error grows for subsamples.

Both cellphone numbers (64 percent) and landlines (36 percent) of proven general election voters were used.

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