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Lawmakers’ budget proposal similar to governor’s

Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, talks about the committee's budget proposal during a news conference Tuesday in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, talks about the committee’s budget proposal during a news conference Tuesday in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bipartisan panel of legislators is backing Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s plan to establish a trust fund to help pay for early childhood programs – part of a broader budget package for the coming year.

The legislative proposal revealed Tuesday also calls for pay raises for teachers and increased spending on public education, similar in scope to the governor’s recommendation.

But the Legislative Finance Committee and governor disagree over whether to fund a new college scholarship program sought by Lujan Grisham and how much to increase spending on child care assistance for parents who work or attend school.

All told, the legislative recommendation calls for about $7.5 billion in ongoing spending – an increase of about 6.5% over current levels. The governor’s budget proposal calls for an 8.4% increase.

The difference amounts to $132 million in annual spending and sets the stage for debate as lawmakers prepare to enter a 30-day session – largely dedicated to financial matters – in two weeks.

“Our difference with the executive is not that far apart,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and vice chairwoman of the Legislative Finance Committee. “I feel like this is a very responsible budget.”

Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, the chairman of the LFC, said an oil boom in the southeastern part of the state is helping provide the revenue to increase spending and maintain healthy reserves of 25%.

“We have a lot to thank oil and gas for,” Smith said Tuesday as the committee released its budget recommendations in Santa Fe.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat entering her second year in office, released her budget proposal Monday.

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the administration is optimistic about the coming budget talks.

“It seems unprecedented to have so much agreement at this point in the process,” she said, “and we’re very excited to be starting from a place where there is so much overlap.”

Reaching agreement on a spending plan will be a priority in coming months. Legislators begin their session Jan. 21 and have until Feb. 20 to send the governor a budget package.

Lujan Grisham will then have until March 11 to act on the budget.

Among the expected points of debate:

• The governor is proposing $35 million in funding for a new scholarship program aimed at making college tuition-free for state residents. The legislative budget proposal doesn’t include funding for the program but instead targets $35 million in increases for more traditional financial aid programs, including for low-income students.

• The LFC is proposing a 3% pay raise across the board for teachers, school personnel and state employees, with targeted increases beyond that in a few cases, such as for bilingual and special education teachers and State Police officers. The governor is proposing 4% salary increases for teachers and 3% raises for state workers.

• The Legislative Finance Committee is recommending $150 million to help the state’s two main pension systems – one for educators and the other for traditional public employees. The governor is proposing $76 million, focused on the public employees plan, not the system for educators.

• Lujan Grisham is seeking $26 million to expand eligibility for a child care assistance program for low-income families. Lawmakers are proposing about $1 million extra for child care assistance subsidies.

The sharp difference reflects a broader disagreement over the program. Legislative analysts say the state-subsidized child care program hasn’t improved educational outcomes for the kids who participate. Supporters of the program note that it has succeeded in helping families boost their incomes.

The funding discrepancy triggered a quick response Tuesday from New Mexico Voices for Children, an advocacy group that said the legislative recommendation would leave the child care assistance program “out of reach for far too many families struggling to afford the enormous cost of high-quality care for their children.”

Nonetheless, the Lujan Grisham administration and high-ranking legislators said they see plenty of shared priorities.

Both budget recommendations include hundreds of millions of dollars to establish an early childhood trust fund. Lujan Grisham proposed $320 million, and lawmakers suggested $325 million.

The fund would work like an endowment in future years, disbursing perhaps tens of millions of dollars annually for early childhood programs. If the balance of the trust fund reaches $1 billion, for example, it could generate $40 million to $50 million a year.

The legislative and governor’s budget proposals also suggest similar increases – roughly $53 million to $57 million – in a funding formula that provides extra money to schools and districts with a large number of “at-risk” students.

The Legislative Finance Committee includes members of both parties and legislative chambers. Its initial budget proposal reflects a broad consensus of the group, lawmakers said.

“We’ve got a very good budget,” said Sen. Jim White, R-Albuquerque.

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