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Senate approves $5.9B budget


Senate approves $5.9B budgetBy Dan Boyd Journal Capitol Bureau

SANTA FE – A $5.9 billion budget that would appropriate more money for New Mexico public schools and give state workers a pay raise got a decisive thumbs-up Tuesday in the state Senate.

However, the big state budget bill apparently will face at least minority opposition in the House during the final days of the 60-day legislative session, even before moving on to Gov. Susana Martinez.

House Republican Whip, Nate Gentry of Albuquerque, said House Republicans “will not concur on the proposed Senate budget because it is seriously flawed.” He cited concerns about changes in education funding.

The Republican governor also was not happy with the amended budget approved by the Senate.

“Gov. Martinez is disappointed by the amended budget passed by the state Senate today,” spokesman Enrique Knell said.

Martinez’s spokesman said the state worker pay raise appeared to come at the expense of her education and economic development proposals.

“As she has said from the beginning, the governor is willing to meet legislators halfway, but this budget would be vetoed in its current form,” Knell said.

The Senate made changes to the budget proposal originally approved last month in the House. Senate changes included tacking on an additional $6.5 million in spending.

After little debate and one withdrawn amendment, senators on Tuesday voted 42-0 to approve the legislation, which would increase state spending for the coming fiscal year by $246 million – or 4.4 percent – from this year’s levels.

Because there was almost no discussion of the bill on the floor, it was not clear why all 17 Senate Republicans voted along with the chamber’s 25 Democrats to send the bill on to the House.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said the spending plan would prepare the state for possible federal budget cuts by leaving roughly $20 million available for emergency spending.

“We’re going to hope for the best, but we’ve prepared for the worst,” Smith told his colleagues during Tuesday’s debate.

As approved Tuesday, the spending plan includes a 1 percent salary increase for all state employees, including teachers, and a 4 percent pay hike for certain law enforcement officers. State workers have not received a base pay increase since 2008.

The governor’s spokesman has said the Republican governor would support the salary increase, but only if her education and economic initiatives were approved by the Legislature.

“This unbalanced approach provides government employee pay raises, but cuts common sense education reform, such as funding for early childhood literacy programs and merit-based pay raises for teachers,” Knell said Tuesday in response to the Senate budget action.

Public school funding would make up nearly half of the total spending increase in the state budget – about $112 million of the $246 million. Education spending currently makes up about 43 percent of state spending.

The Senate-passed budget also would increase spending on higher education, Medicaid and the state’s prisons.

Overall, state spending would rise for the second straight year under the plan endorsed Tuesday. Spending was cut for three consecutive years before that, due in large part to plummeting state revenue levels.

One point of contention in the earlier, House-approved budget was $3 million that was earmarked for a Martinez-backed merit pay pilot program that would be tied to a teacher evaluation system.

After being criticized by some Democratic lawmakers, that provision was scrapped in the Senate, which instead turned it into a $2 million stipend that would be available for experienced teachers who take jobs at low-performing schools.

Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the budget approved Tuesday includes funding for other education initiatives backed by Martinez. But he described the decision to do away with the merit pay provision as a smart one.

“Merit pay has not worked,” Sapien said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal