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Senate committee approves budget bill

SANTA FE – A budget bill endorsed Sunday by a Senate committee would tack about $17.5 million for public school initiatives sought by Gov. Susana Martinez on to a House-drafted spending plan.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 9-0 in favor of the $6.2 billion budget bill, which could be voted on by the full Senate by as soon as tonight.

“We’re hoping we’ve hit a critical balance,” said the committee’s chairman, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who spent several days working with other senators to craft changes to a budget bill drafted but stalled in the House.

School spending has been the subject of fierce debate as lawmakers try to pass a budget before Thursday, the last day of this year’s 30-day legislative session.

Specifically, some Democratic legislators have dug in their heels on the Martinez administration’s request to give more spending authority to the Public Education Department to implement various K-12 initiatives.

Of the $17.5 million in increased education funding in the Senate version of the budget, roughly $7.2 million would be available for training and retention initiatives, including the controversial concept of merit-based pay for teachers.

However, school districts would be able to decide whether to seek that funding, Smith said. In addition, other Senate Democrats said language would stipulate that not all of the $7.2 million could be used on merit pay.

“If you don’t have to have a one-size-fits-all, I think it’s a worthy issue,” said Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, of merit pay.

The modified bill would keep the number of dollars that flow through the state’s public school funding formula roughly the same.

Meanwhile, the spending plan would also earmark $11.5 million in the coming budget year to help the cash-strapped lottery scholarship program, while also giving a 3 percent salary increase to all state employees and teachers.

State Police, social workers and new educators would see even larger pay raises.

In all, the budget approved Sunday by the Senate Finance Committee would increase state spending in the coming fiscal year by $293 million – or about 5 percent – from this year’s levels. It would mark the third consecutive year of increased state spending, following several years of budget cuts caused by a steep economic downturn.

A spokesman for Martinez, the state’s first-term Republican governor, took a cautious approach to the budget proposal that emerged Sunday.

“We’ve been able to review part of the SFC budget proposal, but are continuing to review language and other aspects of it,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said. “There is, of course, a long way left to go in the process.”

The New Mexico state budget typically starts in the House of Representatives, but the Senate decided to take up the issue after a House budget bill stalled Feb. 7 on a tie vote, mostly along party lines.

“I feel confident the House is going to look at the bipartisan way we did this budget,” Beffort said. “I don’t think anyone wants a special session.”

Smith, who said he did not negotiate directly with the Governor’s Office on the revised budget bill, sounded a similar tone.

“We’re working against time, but time can also be your friend,” he said.

In other legislative action Sunday:

  • The Senate voted 40-0 in favor of approving a $169 million in general obligation bond projects. The list of projects include the renovation several University of New Mexico facilities, including the UNM Health Sciences building.

Funding for the projects would have to be approved by statewide voters in November. The bill is Senate Bill 53.

  • A Senate bill designed to help fund rural hospitals passed the Senate on a 38-4 vote after being amended twice.

The measure, Senate Bill 268, has generated intense debate at the Roundhouse. It would require most New Mexico counties – excluding Bernalillo and Sandoval – to kick in more money to offset hospital losses from uncompensated care and treating indigent patients.

  • A measure that would allow individual New Mexico counties to choose to raise their taxes on liquor by about 5 cents per drink passed the Senate on a 27-14 vote.

Senate Bill 263, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, would require the increased tax revenue to go toward local alcohol-abuse treatment programs.

Currently, only McKinley County is allowed by law to set a higher tax rate on alcohol for such programs.