Senate votes 25-16 to approve massive spending bill, but some lawmakers unhappy about political arm-twisting - Albuquerque Journal

Senate votes 25-16 to approve massive spending bill, but some lawmakers unhappy about political arm-twisting

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, the Senate Finance Committee’s chairman, asks questions about a massive state spending bill during a committee hearing last week. The Senate voted 25-16 on Sunday to approve the budget plan, despite frustration over last-minute changes to the bill. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — Amid accusations of political pressure and backroom dealing, the Senate voted late Sunday to approve a $9.6 billion spending plan that would boost state spending to record-high levels — more than 13.7% higher than current levels.

Democrats and Republicans alike voiced frustration with how budget-drafting was done — and specifically about last-minute changes to the spending plan — but some lawmakers said the revisions were necessary to ensure a budget bill that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will sign is approved with the adjournment of this year’s 60-day session looming in less than a week.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, the Senate Finance Committee’s chairman, said he tried to be transparent in his handling of the spending bill after it passed the House last month, but acknowledged difficulty in modernizing a system that has long been shrouded in secrecy.

“It’s time for New Mexico to change,” Muñoz said.

But the Senate voted 25-16 to approve the spending plan, with all Democrats except Sen. Shannon Pinto of Tohatchi voting in favor. All Senate Republicans voted against the bill, which now goes back to the House to consider the Senate’s changes.

The Senate Finance Committee had approved revisions to a House-approved budget bill on Saturday, but took the unusual step of bringing the spending plan back for additional tweaks Sunday morning — before it advanced to a full chamber vote later in the day.

One particular budget line-item that drew attention was $2 million for the Department of Game and Fish to protect threatened species that had been on the chopping block in a previous version of the budget bill before being restored.

The last-minute tweaks drew the ire of GOP senators, who suggested the Governor’s Office and some top lawmakers had conspired on the changes.

“We shouldn’t be putting the stuff in here without running it through the process, letting every legislator in the House vote for it, before we just stick it in the dadgum budget as a personal piggy-bank,” Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, said during the committee hearing.

Those concerns were also voiced during the Sunday evening floor debate, with Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, saying, “There’s a lot of us that still don’t have any idea what’s going on with the budget.”

While the final vote broke down largely along party lines, Democrats also voiced frustration.

“Are we moving New Mexico forward with this budget?” asked Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces. “We’ve done some good things but we could have done so much more.”

Specifically, he said the budget bill does not provide enough money for preventing child abuse, even with lawmakers sitting on an estimated $3.6 billion in “new” money due to gushing oil production in southeast New Mexico and an uptick in consumer spending.

Rapid state spending growth to continue

In its current form, the budget plan would provide average 6% salary increases for state workers and teachers, starting in July.

It would also appropriate $100 million in one-time funding for a law enforcement officer recruitment fund, though Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, questioned whether the entire amount could be used by the Lujan Grisham administration in the coming year.

Overall, the budget calls for year-over-year state spending to increase by nearly $1.2 billion over current levels. State spending levels have also increased dramatically over the last two years due to the unprecedented revenue windfall.

But some lawmakers have expressed misgivings about the budget growth, citing a revenue roller-coaster ride over the last decade that has caused lawmakers to alternate spending increases with budget cuts.

Changes aimed at resolving budget disagreements

While the Governor’s Office and the Legislature entered this year’s session with budget plans that called for similar spending amounts, key disagreements have surfaced over the course of this year’s session.

Those areas of disagreement include proper funding levels for the Opportunity Scholarship, a tuition-free college program championed by Lujan Grisham, and child care assistance programs.

Many of the budget bill changes adopted by the Senate were in response to concerns raised by the Governor’s Office after the House passed its version of the bill.

Meanwhile, the final changes also included revised budget language for how roughly $250 million should be spent to extend New Mexico’s annual public school calendar.

A related bill, House Bill 130, requiring school districts provide at least 1,140 hours of instructional time per school year — or about 180 school days — was approved late Sunday by the Senate.

While that measure passed on a 34-6 vote, some senators suggested the last-minute changes represented an end-run of sorts around this year’s budget-drafting efforts, which began when state agencies presented their budget requests last fall.

“I think this process made a joke of the budget,” Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, said during Sunday’s debate. “It’s just unfortunate that our values and our priorities got undermined.”

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