House panel decisively approves $7.4 billion budget plan

Luke Jaramillo, a junior at Santa Fe High School, participates Monday in a hybrid learning system that was launched after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration cleared the way for students to return to classrooms. A $7.4 billion budget bill would authorize $110 million for extended learning programs around New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Suddenly flush with cash, members of a key House panel on Monday signed off on a $7.4 billion spending plan that would provide state funds to extend the school year by at least 10 days and give modest pay raises to teachers and other state workers.

In all, the budget plan for the fiscal year that starts in July would boost state spending for the coming fiscal year by $332 million – or 4.6% – over this year’s levels, which had to be pared back due to pandemic-related revenue declines.

The state’s revenue outlook has brightened in recent months, due largely to an increase in oil prices and production, giving lawmakers a hefty budget surplus despite concerns about future revenue uncertainty.

Given that backdrop, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted unanimously Monday to approve the spending plan, which would boost state spending to near pre-pandemic levels.

And that’s not counting additional federal funds – estimates range from $2 billion to around $3 billion – that could be directed to New Mexico under a new proposed stimulus plan.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, the committee’s chairwoman, said the state budget bill would avoid spending cuts and position New Mexico for a “successful recovery.”

“In this pandemic, it is not the time to attack state government spending,” said Rep. Phelps Anderson, DTS-Roswell.

Under the budget plan advanced Monday, lawmakers would use about $1 billion of the state’s $2.7 billion in projected cash reserves for one-time spending.

That includes $300 million for road repair and construction around New Mexico and, in separate bills, more than $400 million in pandemic relief in the form of cash rebates for low-income workers, small-business grants and other financial aid programs.

In addition, a separate bill being crafted in the Senate would authorize $30 million for broadband improvements and $325 million to replenish the state’s nearly depleted unemployment fund, legislative staffers said.

“I think this is a great budget despite the challenges and circumstances we face,” said Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque.

Extended learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected not only the state’s economy, but also its public school system.

Many New Mexico school districts have had enrollment declines, with hundreds of students and families struggling under the remote learning format.

School officials and legislators alike have also expressed concern about learning loss, with a recent legislative report finding that students may lose five to nine months of learning by the end of this school year, with students of color disproportionately harmed.

In an attempt to address those issues, the budget plan would appropriate nearly $3.4 billion – or roughly 46% of total state spending – to public schools.

As part of that amount, the bill would provide $110 million for extended learning, with that funding covering the cost for 10 additional instructional days for all K-12 students.

Elementary schools with high-poverty student populations would get additional funding to expand the school year by 25 days, though districts would have the flexibility to schedule those days – either during summer vacation or during the traditional school year.

That program, called K-5 Plus, is part of the state’s strategy to come into compliance with a landmark 2018 ruling that New Mexico was not meeting its constitutional requirement to provide at-risk students with an adequate education.

Pay raises

Meanwhile, the budget plan would authorize spending $64 million to provide 1.5% pay raises – or cost-of-living adjustments – for state employees, teachers and higher education workers. New Mexico judges would get 3.5% raises.

A budget recommendation released last month by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham did not call for across-the-board pay increases.

However, at least one local union leader said the proposed raises would not go far enough for rank-and-file workers.

Dan Secrist, president of Communications Workers of America Local 7076, which represents about 4,000 public employees in New Mexico, said legislators should be doing more for state employees – many of whom are front-line, essential workers.

Most state employees, he said, were in line to receive a 4% or 5% raise last year, but it was pulled back to just 1% – or less – in a round of budget-cutting last summer. Employees making over $50,000 didn’t raises.

“We feel like there’s no reason – there’s no excuse – for them to not be restoring our rescinded raise,” Secrist said, adding that the state should set a $15 minimum wage for its employees.

The budget bill, House Bill 2, is expected to be voted on by the full House as soon as Wednesday. If approved, it would then advance to the Senate, where changes would likely be made to the legislation.

Both chambers would have to sign off on the same version of the bill to send it to Lujan Grisham for final approval.

Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Dan McKay contributed to this report.

 

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