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House passes budget bill on party-line vote

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Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, responds to a question about a $7.6 billion budget bill during Wednesday’s debate on the House floor, as Legislative Finance Committee Director David Abbey listens. The bill passed the chamber on a party-line 46-24 vote and now advances to the Senate. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A $7.6 billion spending plan that would fund New Mexico teacher pay raises, road repairs and the creation of a new early childhood trust fund is headed to the Senate.

After three hours of debate late Wednesday, the House voted 46-24 along party lines to approve the budget bill, which would increase year-over-year state spending in the coming year by $529 million – or 7.5% — – over current levels.

Democrats said the spending plan would continue New Mexico’s upward trajectory by increasing spending on economic development, education and tourism-related initiatives, along with more money for infrastructure improvements.

“We’re looking from a budgetary standpoint at building the (economic) base and expanding so we’re more diversified,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

However, minority Republicans pushed for an alternative spending plan of their own that called for a lower amount of recurring spending than the Democratic-backed proposal and $200 rebates for all New Mexico residents.

They expressed concerns over increasing state spending by 20% over a two-year period, saying such an approach could put the state in a predicament if oil production slows or prices were to fall.

“Do we all just believe that throwing money at a problem is a solution?” Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, asked during Wednesday’s debate.

But their attempt was thwarted by majority Democrats, who argued that New Mexico faces a litany of needs – including reducing a waiting list for support services for those with developmental disabilities – that would be underfunded by the GOP spending plan.

“By no means do I believe this is reckless spending or that we’re trying to break the bank,” said Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque.

Specifically, the spending plan adopted Wednesday would authorize 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.

The bill also would authorize several big one-time expenditures, including $300 million for a proposed early childhood endowment fund, $255 million for road repairs around New Mexico and $75 million as part of a plan to bolster one of the state’s public retirement systems.

Roughly $2 billion would still be set aside in cash reserves in case projected revenue levels do not materialize, but some GOP lawmakers said that might not be enough.

“We have a spending problem here in Santa Fe,” said House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, told a news conference earlier Wednesday.

Overall, New Mexico’s recent spending increases have been fueled by rising revenue levels, due primarily to an oil drilling boom in the state’s southeastern corner.

Just three years ago, the state’s budgetary situation was much cloudier, as an extended economic downturn forced lawmakers to enact spending cuts, deplete cash reserves and sweep dollars from various state programs.

Passing a balanced budget is arguably lawmakers’ top task in Santa Fe.

Now that the budget bill has been approved by the House, it goes to the Senate with two weeks left in the 30-day legislative session.

Although the Senate is expected to make some changes, both chambers must eventually agree on a final version of the bill to send it to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk before the session ends Feb. 20.

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