House panel OKs $5.9B budget plan

SANTA FE – A House committee approved a $5.9 billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year Tuesday, though disagreements over education funding prompted several Democratic lawmakers to withhold their support.

The budget proposal was endorsed 15-3 by the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. It would increase state spending by roughly $239 million – or 4.2 percent – from this year’s spending levels.

The spending plan includes a 1 percent salary increase for all state employees, including teachers, and a slightly larger pay hike for certain law enforcement officers.

Although Gov. Susana Martinez has previously opposed the idea of across-the-board pay increases, she hinted Tuesday that she would support the provision as long as funding is appropriated for her education initiatives and tax proposals.

“I’ve always said that my priorities are education reform and tax reform,” Martinez told reporters. “If we’re able to do that, we can certainly start looking at the 1 percent for state employees.”

Public school funding would represent nearly half of the total spending increase – about $112 million of the $239 million. That does not include the pay hike for teachers.

Specific budget bill education earmarks include $11.5 million for early childhood intervention programs and roughly $3 million for a Martinez-backed teacher evaluation program.

“Most of the new money we had this year went into public education,” said House finance committee Vice Chairwoman Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup. “We’re proud of that.”

However, several Democrats voiced criticism of changes made to the budget proposal that would give more control of education spending to the Public Education Department, which is part of the Martinez administration. Those changes were made after some top-ranking committee members met with the governor.

Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, told the Journal that education funding in the budget bill had been “hijacked,” adding that allowing for more state-level control over school funding makes it hard to track how the money is spent.

“At least from my perspective, we’ve done public education a disservice,” Trujillo said.

Along with Trujillo, first-term Democratic Reps. Stephanie Garcia Richard of Los Alamos and Elizabeth Thomson of Albuquerque were the other House members to cast votes Tuesday against the spending plan.

All eight Republican members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted in favor of the measure.

In defending the budget, the committee’s deputy chairman, Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, said Martinez had indicated in private meetings that she would veto the bill if funding for some of her education initiatives were not provided.

Meanwhile, the bill approved by the committee Tuesday also would leave about $19 million in projected “new” money unspent. That money could be used to help pay for tax cuts proposed by Martinez, such as a bill that would trim the state’s corporate tax rate from 7.6 percent to 4.9 percent to make the state more economically competitive with its neighbors.

Overall, state spending would increase for the second straight year under the budget proposal. The budget was cut for three consecutive years before that, due largely to a recession-driven drop in tax revenue.

Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro, said the budget measure would position New Mexico well for potential federal budget cuts.

He also voiced support for the proposed salary increases for state employees, who have not had a base salary increase since 2008, saying, “I really believe we need to do something along those lines.”

The $5.9 billion spending plan now advances to the House floor, where it is expected to be voted on Thursday. — This article appeared on page A03 of the Albuquerque Journal

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