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Senate panel unveils changes to $7.4B budget plan

The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday unveiled proposed changes to a House-approved $7.4 billion spending plan that would increase state funding for higher education financial aid programs and a New Mexico tourism marketing initiative, among other amendments. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Proposed changes to a House-approved $7.4 billion budget bill unveiled Wednesday would increase state spending for several New Mexico financial aid programs for college and university students.

Specifically, the Senate Finance Committee amendments to the budget plan would add $11 million for an Opportunity Scholarship program that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has championed, bringing spending on the program to $16 million for the budget year that starts July 1.

Only $5 million was appropriated for the fledgling program, which was touted as a path to providing tuition-free college, for the current budget year, which was far less than Lujan Grisham had initially proposed.

In addition, the Senate committee’s proposed amendments would add $10.5 million to a separate lottery scholarship program, which would allow for 90% of tuition costs to be covered for higher education students who qualify for the scholarship.

“Putting money in (the lottery scholarship) stretches the opportunity dollars,” Legislative Finance Committee Director David Abbey said during Wednesday’s committee hearing.

The Senate Finance Committee did not formally vote on the amended budget bill Wednesday, although it did give preliminary approval to the proposed amendments.

Once the revised budget bill is passed by the panel, it will go to the full Senate for a vote and, if approved there, will return to the House for final passage.

New Mexico is projected to have roughly $2.7 billion in cash reserves at the end of this year, and about $1 billion of that would be used on one-time expenditures such as road repairs, tax rebates for low-income workers and small-business grants.

Other proposed Senate Finance Committee changes include an additional $2 million for a state tourism marketing initiative – up from $5 million in the House bill – and an extra $1 million for athletics programs at University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University, which both experienced significant revenue losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The committee changes would also mean an additional $41 million to the budget plan to accommodate a proposed increase in taxpayer-funded contributions to New Mexico’s teacher pension fund, contingent on a separate bill on the issue winning final approval.

Other provisions in the budget bill would remain unchanged, including 1.5% pay raises for state employees, teachers and higher education workers.

The House initially passed its version of the budget bill 60-10 on Feb. 24.

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