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House panel OKs $6.2B spending plan

SANTA FE – A key House budget committee signed off Thursday on a nearly $6.2 billion state spending plan for next year, but Gov. Susana Martinez warned she opposes the union-backed budget in its current form.

The 10-7 vote in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee broke down along party lines, with Democrats voting in favor of the bill and Republican members voting against it, largely due to concerns about how K-12 spending would be administered.

Martinez, New Mexico’s first-term Republican governor, has criticized the budget plan for not funding some of her administration’s education initiatives, such as an online parent portal system and a merit-based pay program for teachers.

“It’s completely inadequate, and it reflects a real unwillingness on the part of some in the House to compromise and find common ground,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said earlier this week of the budget. He said Thursday that the statement still applies.

However, Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, the committee’s deputy chairman, said Democrats had delayed a vote on the budget bill in hopes of receiving a counteroffer from Republicans that never came.

He suggested the spending plan could be modified as it moves through the legislative process. The bill still must be passed by full House before advancing to the Senate.

A vote in the House of Representatives could occur as early as today. Democrats hold a 37-33 advantage in the chamber, but two of their members – Reps. Phillip Archuleta of Las Cruces and Ernest Chavez of Albuquerque – have been battling health problems and have not yet set foot in the Capitol during this year’s session. If one Democrat joined Republicans on the House floor, a Democratic measure could fail on a tie vote.

“This is not the end of the process,” Varela told the Journal. “I’m still optimistic we can work together.”

Varela also described the budget as a well-balanced spending package, saying, “There’s something in this bill for everyone.”

In all, the budget plan would raise state spending during the coming fiscal year by roughly $280 million – a 4.8 percent increase over this year’s $5.9 billion budget. More than half of that spending increase, about $150 million, would go toward public education.

In addition, the budget would give all state employees and teachers a 3 percent salary increase, their largest pay hike in years.

New teachers, State Police officers and juvenile caseworkers would receive even larger salary increases, as would the governor, attorney general and other elected officials, who would all get 10 percent pay raises. The total cost to the state of the salary hikes would be about $111 million.

Labor union officials applauded the proposed pay hikes, noting that many state workers dealt with furloughs and pay freezes during an extended economic downturn that prompted three years of budget cuts, starting in 2009.

Meanwhile, teachers union leaders said they do not want the budget bill to be significantly altered as it moves forward.

“Our concern is that it stay the way it is,” said Charles Goodmacher, a representative of National Education Association-New Mexico.

A key budget dispute has revolved around how much of the state’s K-12 budget should be targeted at specific initiatives that would be administered by the Public Education Department. Unlike other education funding, that money would not flow through the state’s funding formula to the state’s 89 school districts.

The Martinez administration initially recommended a spending increase of about $55 million for PED initiatives, or so-called “below-the-line” spending. The budget plan endorsed Thursday would increase such spending by about $23 million.

House Republicans said the education funding levels in the budget are not acceptable and vowed to push for more money.

“My problem with it is trying to actually continue reforms,” said Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro.

He also urged the Democratic-controlled Legislature to make more changes to the budget, saying, “Before we can support it, there’s going to have to be some give and take.”