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Budget bill fails in tie vote; school funds at issue

SANTA FE – A $6.2 billion budget bill for the coming year failed on the House floor in a 34-34 vote Friday, likely forcing lawmakers back to the negotiating table with less than two weeks left in the 30-day legislative session.

With education spending the primary source of disagreement, Democratic Rep. Sandra Jeff of Crownpoint joined with the House of Representatives’ 33 GOP members to stymie the budget bill, which had been passed by a House budget panel on party-line vote a day earlier. Two members of the 70-member chamber were absent due to health issues.

Who will have control over a relatively small percentage of new education spending – local school districts or Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration – was a strong undercurrent of the debate as the big budget bill failed on a tie vote.

“Everybody will take a deep breath, assess where we’re at and go from there,” House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, told reporters after the vote. “We’ll get a budget passed.”

Top-ranking House Republicans, who tried to amend the budget to give the Public Education Department more control over K-12 spending, said they will continue to push for changes in public school funding.

House Minority Whip Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said Democrats are “terrified” that the Martinez’s education initiatives would be successful if implemented.

“There is a lot of election-year posturing,” Gentry said after Friday’s vote. “But my guess is (this vote) sends people back to the negotiating table.”

Because the budget bill failed on a tie vote, it could be brought back for consideration in the House at any time, with or without changes.

Democrats hold a 37-33 majority in the House, but two Democrats – Reps. Ernest Chavez of Albuquerque and Phillip Archuleta of Las Cruces – have been battling health problems and have yet to set foot in the Capitol during this year’s session.

Speaker Martinez acknowledged the political equation in the House has changed during this year’s session, due largely to the absences, but said he won’t pressure the ailing lawmakers to return to the Roundhouse.

In all, the budget plan under consideration Friday would have increased state spending by about $280 million – or 4.8 percent – over this year’s levels. More than half of that spending increase, about $150 million, would have gone toward public schools.

In its current form, the budget would also give salary increases of 3 percent to all state employees and teachers, while providing even larger pay hikes for new teachers, certain law enforcement officers and elected officials.

A spokesman for Martinez, the state’s first-term Republican governor, said the budget would have underfunded education initiatives designed to help struggling students and boost low-performing schools. Those initiatives include a merit pay program seeking to link teacher pay hikes to an educator evaluation system.

“It’s unfortunate that Democrats tried to ram through a partisan budget after only negotiating with labor unions and special interests and not the minority party,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said. “That’s how Washington, D.C., operates, but it’s not how we should do things in New Mexico. The Democrats need to work in a bipartisan manner, and we’re willing to do that.”

House Democrats insisted during Friday’s three-hour-plus debate they had already made compromises, such as fulfilling Martinez’s request for $10 million in funding for economic development grants that can be used to entice businesses to relocate to New Mexico.

And they criticized the Republicans’ education push as a misguided attempt to divert spending control away from the state’s 89 school districts.

“It’s giving the executive a check and saying, spend it how you deem appropriate,” said House Democratic Whip Antonio “Moe” Maestas of Albuquerque.

Teachers union officials have said they do not want to see the budget bill significantly altered as it moves forward, but that might prove difficult unless either of the two ailing House Democrats is able to return to the Roundhouse and cast votes.

Once approved by the House, the spending plan must still pass through the Senate, where changes are likely to be made, before advancing to the governor’s desk for final approval.

If lawmakers are unable to pass a budget during the 30-day session, they will likely be summoned back to Santa Fe by Martinez for a special session to try again. The session ends Feb. 20.