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House approves $5.9 billion budget

SANTA FE – Disagreements over public school initiatives backed by Gov. Susana Martinez flared up Thursday, as members of the New Mexico House voted 53-16 in favor of a $5.9 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The budget plan, which would increase state spending by roughly $239 million – or 4.2 percent – now moves on to the Senate with slightly more than three weeks remaining in the 60-day legislative session.

Among other gripes, some Democrats criticized the fact $3 million was earmarked in the budget for a Martinez-backed merit pay pilot program that would be tied to a teacher evaluation system.

By the numbers
The budget bill approved Thursday by the House would increase state spending by $239 million, or 4.2 percent. Here is how certain funding areas would fare:
Public Schools – $112 million increase (4.6 percent)
Higher Education – $28.5 million increase (3.8 percent)
Medicaid – $26.7 million increase (3 percent)
Judicial Branch – $8.6 million increase (4.3 percent)
Prisons – $2.8 million increase (1 percent)

“It’s going to be a bureaucratic nightmare, I think, of epic proportions,” said Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, who was one of 16 Democratic lawmakers who voted against the spending plan.

However, other Democrats, as well many Republican lawmakers, defended the budget as a reasonable compromise.

“If we want to add more money to the budget, we’re going to have to pass tax bills,” said Rep. Henry “Kiki” Saavedra, D-Albuquerque, the chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. “There’s no way we can pass a better budget with the money we have available.”

In addition to the merit pay, the spending plan approved Thursday includes a 1 percent salary increase for all state employees, including teachers, and a slightly larger pay hike for certain law enforcement officers. State workers have not received a base pay increase since 2008.

Martinez recently suggested she would support the salary increases as long as funding is provided for her education and tax initiatives.

While the House-passed budget left just $19 million in projected revenue available for tax breaks and Martinez has called for nearly $50 million in cuts and other tax breaks, a spokesman for the first-term Republican governor offered a positive take on the spending bill.

“The budget passed by the House represents a bipartisan compromise toward achieving our shared goals,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said. “We are only halfway through the process and the governor is committed to continuing to work with legislative leaders to enact a budget that helps move New Mexico forward.”

Overall, public school funding would make up nearly half of the total spending increase in the budget – about $112 million of the $239 million. Education funding currently makes up about 43 percent of state spending.

Martinez’s administration has pushed for public school funding initiatives that could be controlled by the Public Education Department. Though the budget approved Thursday does not grant as much money as Martinez had requested for such initiatives, it does provide $11.5 million that she sought for early childhood intervention programs. That money is related to her push for retention of third-graders who don’t show adequate reading progress.

GOP House members said the Martinez-backed initiatives, such as reading and merit pay plans, could help New Mexico improve its sagging graduation rates.

“I think the way the funds will be directed will help to improve the schools of New Mexico,” said Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque.

Meanwhile, one of the state’s largest teacher’s unions lauded the 16 Democratic lawmakers for voting against the budget bill Thursday, while the Republican Party of New Mexico put out a statement blasting them for the “no” votes.
— This article appeared on page A6 of the Albuquerque Journal

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