Governor’s budget proposal focuses on education

Gov. Susana Martinez unveils her budget plan Monday at Acequia Madre Elementary School, in Santa Fe. With her are, from left, Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela, Public Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera and Finance and Administration Secretary Tom Clifford. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – A $6.1 billion budget plan that Gov. Susana Martinez rolled out Monday would give pay raises to about one-third of New Mexico’s state government employees, while focusing other new spending on education, health care and tax initiatives aimed at making the state more economically competitive.

In contrast to a legislative budget plan that would give all state workers and teachers salary increases of at least 1.5 percent, Martinez’s proposal would grant pay raises only to certain types of state workers, including social workers, State Police officers and computer technicians.

“Small, across-the-board increases do nothing to reform our broken pay classification system,” the first-term Republican governor said Monday at the news conference, held at a Santa Fe elementary school.

In all, the governor’s spending plan would increase recurring state spending by nearly $179 million – or 3 percent – over this year’s levels. It also calls for an additional $112 million in one-time spending, including $16 million that would be made available immediately to prevent cuts to the cash-strapped legislative lottery scholarship program.

By the numbers

The budget proposal unveiled Monday by Gov. Susana Martinez would increase state spending by roughly 3 percent – or nearly $179 million. Here is how the governor’s $6.1 billion budget plan compares to a legislative spending proposal released last week:

Public schools Martinez budget proposal: $100 million increase (3.9 percent) Legislative budget proposal: $143 million increase (5.6 percent)

Higher education Martinez budget proposal: $21 million increase (2.6 percent) Legislative budget proposal: $40.6 million increase (5.1 percent)

Medicaid Martinez budget proposal: $12 million decrease (1 percent) Legislative budget proposal: $24 million decrease (2.7 percent)

However, unlike the legislative budget plan that was released last week, Martinez’s budget would not appropriate additional state money to the scholarship program during the coming fiscal year, which begins in July. Instead, the governor has called on legislators to make structural changes to the scholarship to keep it solvent into the future.

Meanwhile, with the coming 30-day legislative session just two weeks away, the issue of state employee pay looms, for the second straight year, as a sticking point between the Martinez administration and the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, attended Martinez’s budget unveiling. He said the governor’s spending plan would shortchange employees who provide a wide range of public services.

“Government needs those people resources, and there seems to be a reluctance to (provide) those across-the-board increases,” Varela said.

In all, the legislative budget calls for roughly $100 million in total employee pay raises during the coming fiscal year, while Martinez’s spending plan calls for about $32 million in “targeted” salary increases.

Although only about 7,000 of the state’s roughly 22,000 workers would receive pay increases next year under her plan, Martinez said other state employees are not being ignored and could receive raises in coming years.

She also said she is confident in her administration’s ability to work with lawmakers in an election year – the governor and the 70 members of the state’s House of Representatives are all up for re-election this year.

“I believe we can come to an agreement,” Martinez said. “We have good relationships with each other.”

Education is priority

As in the legislative budget plan, a majority of the spending increases proposed by Martinez are for public schools and universities.

However, there is ongoing disagreement between the governor and Democratic lawmakers over how much money should be earmarked for specific education initiatives and how much should flow through the state’s funding formula for schools.

More than half of the $100 million in increased spending proposed by the Martinez administration – a 3.9 percent increase – would be for “below-the-line” expenses that do not flow through the funding formula.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said the Martinez administration’s approach to education funding will continue to cause disagreement during the legislative session that begins Jan. 21.

“The biggest concern is that the governor and the acting secretary are dis-equalizing the formula,” Stewart told the Journal. “They want us to give them (control) of all the money.”

Specific education initiatives backed by Martinez include raising starting teacher pay from $30,000 a year $33,000 a year, granting pay raises to teachers and principals who perform well on a new evaluation system and setting up an early warning system aimed at lowering the rates of high-school dropouts.

The governor, who last week blasted parts of the legislative budget proposal as lacking in accountability and innovation, insisted Monday more changes must be made to the way New Mexico funds public schools.

“We can never improve our economy over the long term if we don’t improve student achievement,” she said.

Public education chief Hanna Skandera, a Martinez appointee, also defended the proposed initiatives, saying taxpayers should know exactly how public dollars are being spent.

“What I call that is accountable dollars with an expectation for a return on investment,” Skandera told reporters.

Fiscal restraint

Since taking office in 2011, Martinez has touted fiscal restraint and a more efficient state government.

Her budget proposal unveiled Monday would represent the third straight year of increased state spending, after several years of budget cuts necessitated by a steep economic downturn.

However, Martinez pointed out that the state would maintain cash reserves of roughly $600 million – or about 10 percent of the state budget – under her spending plan.

Other details of the Martinez administration budget proposal include:

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