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House panel passes $7.6B budget bill on party-line vote

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Rep. Susan Herrea, D-Embudo, center, and others of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, look through data sheets before voting to approve a $7.6 billion budget bill. The annual spending bill passed on a party-line vote and now advances to the full House for consideration. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A $7.6 billion budget plan that would raise teacher pay and fund statewide road repairs is headed to the full House, despite criticism from some legislators that rapid spending growth could put the state in a future bind.

The budget bill would use tax dollars generated by an oil drilling boom in southeastern New Mexico and from other revenue sources to increase state spending by $529 million – or 7.5% – over current levels.

It passed the House appropriations committee on a party-line 11-5 vote, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans in opposition.

Backers said the proposed spending bill would responsibly fund programs that faced budget cuts during a recent economic downturn, while still keeping roughly $2 billion in cash reserves in case projected revenue collections do not materialize.

“It’s clear we need to fulfill citizen need,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

She also expressed disappointment with the GOP opposition to the bill, saying, “I think it’s a little disingenuous to say, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’ve bloated the budget.'”

But Republican lawmakers say the state’s recent budget problems – which led to spending cuts and depleted state reserves – show the need for more restraint.

“I don’t want to put us in a position of giving a green light to programs … only to have to come back and cut them,” said Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad. “I don’t think that’s a good approach.”

Specifically, the spending plan calls for a 5% pay raise for teachers, a 4% raise for other education employees and a 3% bump for state workers.

For teachers, the raise would be the second in two years. Lawmakers last year approved 6% salary increases for educators and an increase in starting teacher pay to $41,000 a year.

A teacher making that minimum amount would receive a $2,050 raise under the budget proposal.

Lundstrom said the pay increases for teachers are needed to fix problems recruiting and retaining teachers around the state.

Meanwhile, the budget bill also contains several hefty one-time expenditures, including $255 million for road projects around the state and $76 million as part of a plan to shore up New Mexico’s retirement system for police officers, judges and other public employees.

It would also set aside $300 million from the state’s current budget surplus for a proposed new early childhood endowment fund, a top initiative of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.

However, another of the governor’s top legislative priorities – a new College Opportunity Scholarship program, aimed at covering tuition for all New Mexicans who meet eligibility standards – would not be funded under the bill approved Monday.

Instead, the House committee’s plan features roughly $35 million in additional state spending on targeted aid for higher education students. That includes $16 million for need-based financial aid and $10 million for an existing college affordability fund.

“There is still a ways to go before the budget is finalized, and we’re going to keep working to get where we need to be,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor. “We appreciate that the House provided for certain of our early childhood education priorities and feel more is needed in other areas, of course, and we look forward to continuing that conversation.”

Both the first-term Democratic governor and a key legislative interim committee released spending plans before the current 30-day session began.

The budget bill endorsed Monday represents a compromise of sorts between the two plans in several areas, including funding for early childhood programs.

Specifically, the current version of the bill would appropriate $208.3 million to the fledgling Early Childhood Education and Care Department – less than requested by the Lujan Grisham administration but more than what the Legislative Finance Committee initially proposed.

The budget bill could be voted on by the full House as soon as Tuesday. If approved there, it will advance to the Senate, where additional changes would likely be made.

Both chambers must agree on a spending plan to send the bill to Lujan Grisham’s desk before the legislative session ends Feb. 20.


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