Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A key Senate committee unveiled changes to a $7 billion budget bill Monday, including stripping out language aimed at making the University of New Mexico bring back four eliminated sports teams to get state dollars.
The Senate Finance Committee also more than doubled the amount of money – from $16 million to $60 million – for a state “closing fund,” a program aimed at spurring business growth by offsetting the cost of land acquisition and bricks-and-mortar upgrades.
But the panel left largely untouched a proposed $447 million – or 16 percent – spending increase on public schools that includes pay raises for educators, extended school years and more money through the state’s funding formula for districts with a large number of low-income students.
Legislators say that spending infusion, along with other bills pending at the Roundhouse, could bring the state into compliance with a landmark court ruling last summer that the state was not meetings its constitutional mandate to provide an adequate education to all students.
“We’re putting a lot of money into education,” Sen. Jim White, R-Albuquerque, said during Monday’s hearing. “We’re making a serious effort to answer some of the lawsuit’s questions.”
In all, the revised budget bill, with 123 amendments, would use an unprecedented revenue increase – driven by an oil production boom in southeastern New Mexico – to raise state spending levels by roughly $704 million.
After several cash-lean years, the budget plan would provide more than $300 million in one-time funds for state highway construction and repairs.
It also would authorize 4 percent salary raises for most rank-and-file state workers during the fiscal year that starts in July, and 6 percent pay hikes for all school employees.
Although the revised plan would still leave an estimated $1.4 billion – or 20 percent of state spending – available in cash reserves, some lawmakers have expressed unease about the size of the proposed spending increase.
“We’re like a homeless person who wins the lottery,” Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, said during a Senate debate on a different bill this week. “We’re going to spend it all, and in two to three years we’re going to be broke again.”
But other lawmakers have argued the spending uptick is necessary to properly fund state programs whose budgets were cut during a multiyear revenue downturn that ended in 2017.
One of the Senate Finance Committee’s changes that could face opposition in the House deals with funding college athletics.
The original budget plan passed last month by the House would boost the state’s general fund appropriation for the UNM Athletics Department to $4.6 million next year, up from $2.6 million this year. UNM requested $4.1 million.
However, to receive any of the $4.6 million in state dollars, UNM would have to reinstate the men’s and women’s ski teams, the women’s beach volleyball team and the men’s soccer team.
After years of athletics financial struggles, the university’s Board of Regents unanimously voted last year to cut the sports, based on a recommendation from UNM President Garnett Stokes and Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez, both in their first year at UNM. But five of the seven regents on the board have been replaced since that vote.
The powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, has said he is skeptical about “micromanaging” the university, and the committee ultimately removed that language while reducing the proposed state allocation for UNM athletics to $3.7 million.
The change is not a done deal yet, as the House would still have to sign off on the Senate’s alterations to the budget bill later this week. If the House does not agree to do so, a conference committee featuring members from both chambers will be assigned to reach a compromise.
Among the other 122 amendments approved by the Senate Finance Committee is the addition of $6.75 million to go toward Medicaid provider rate increases.
Also, the Senate panel added $2.5 million for the Secretary of State’s Office to help administer local elections under a new law approved last year.
But some proposed House appropriations were trimmed, including cutting in half the size of proposed increases in taxpayer-funded payments into New Mexico’s two large public retirements system.
The 60-day legislative session ends at noon Saturday.