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Senate, House at odds over budget

 Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, left, is congratulated by Sens. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, and John Pinto, D-Gallup, after the Senate passed the budget bill Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, left, is congratulated by Sens. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, and John Pinto, D-Gallup, after the Senate passed the budget bill Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The House and Senate were at odds late Wednesday over budget language about roads, education pay raises and University of New Mexico sports teams as a 60-day legislative session neared its finish line.

After the Senate overwhelmingly approved its own version of a $7 billion budget plan passed by the House last month, the House refused to sign off on those changes.

That set the stage for a legislative conference committee, in which appointed representatives from both chambers will try to hammer out a compromise – possibly by as soon as today.

“This isn’t a war or anything, but we’ve got to get together and talk about some of this stuff,” Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, the House appropriations committee’s chairwoman, told reporters after the Wednesday vote.

Both the House and Senate versions of the budget bill would use dollars from an oil drilling boom to propel New Mexico spending levels to an all-time high.

While the total spending levels are similar in the two versions, they feature different budget language when it comes to several high-profile spending areas.

The House version, for instance, would set funding levels for various road construction and repair projects statewide, while the Senate version would largely leave it up to the state Department of Transportation to decide how $250 million for such projects would be divvied up.

“They know best what projects they have planned,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, told the Journal, referring to the DOT.

In addition, the Senate stripped out House budgetary language aimed at making the University of New Mexico bring back four eliminated sports teams – including men’s soccer – in order to receive state dollars.

Smith has described that approach as “micromanaging” the university’s affairs, but Lundstrom said Wednesday she still wants to see the teams reinstated.

Double-digit boost

Overall, the version of the budget bill approved by the Senate via a 39-2 vote on Wednesday would increase state spending by $703 million – or 11.1 percent – over current levels.

The House-passed bill would have increased total spending by $684 million – or 10.8 percent.

Nearly two-thirds of both versions of the budget is aimed at education, including teacher pay raises, longer school years and other education initiatives. In addition, budget language would require school districts to spend most of their allocated funding on classroom expenditures, not administrative costs.

For Albuquerque Public Schools, the requirement would specify that at least 75 percent of state funds go toward classrooms.

“We are delighted that the budget includes this language, and we urge Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to sign it and deliver on her commitment to limit administrative costs and maximize dollars to the classroom,” said Fred Nathan, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Think New Mexico, a group that has pushed for lawmakers to limit administrative spending.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office in January, has called for a “moonshot” in public education, and the budget bill approved Wednesday would take a giant leap toward that request.

In all, state spending for schools would increase by $472.7 million – or 17.5 percent – under the plan approved by the Senate, about the same as in the House bill.

That money would be used to expand pre-kindergarten programs, funnel more money to districts with high populations of low-income students and provide pay raises for teachers and school administrators

But the two versions of the budget feature different language about how those salary increases would be implemented.

Oil money infusion

Under both the House and Senate versions of the budget bill, the unprecedented spending uptick would come just two years after a revenue downturn prompted lawmakers to approve sweeping spending cuts and other budget-balancing measures.

Surging oil production levels in southeastern New Mexico – and taxes and royalties connected to the boom – have driven the state’s rapid financial rebound, though some senators cautioned that the state was relying on a historically volatile revenue source.

“When things look too good to be true, you better start being cautious,” said Smith, who has cited the fact that about 45 percent of the state’s spending is funded by the oil and natural gas industries.

In addition, the state faces several spending challenges, including pension liabilities that prompted a downgrade of New Mexico’s bond rating last year.

There’s also the matter of a landmark court ruling last summer that New Mexico was failing to meet its constitutional mandate to provide an adequate education to all students. The ruling specifically cited Native Americans, English-language learners and other minority students.

During Wednesday’s debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, proposed an ultimately unsuccessful amendment that would have stripped away salaries for judges.

“If the judiciary wants to legislate, I propose they be paid the same as what we’re paid,” Brandt said, referring to the fact New Mexico is the nation’s only unsalaried Legislature.