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Senate unanimously passes budget plan

SANTA FE – The Senate voted 42-0 late Tuesday to approve a $6.2 billion budget bill, sending the measure to the House and paving the way for lawmakers to possibly wrap up their 30-day session without having to return to the Capitol for a special session.

With the session required to end Thursday at noon, House budget leaders said they will try to pass the spending bill through committee today without any changes.

“We better get it through, or we’ll be back for a special session,” said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe. “We do not want to make any changes in the House.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez described the budget bill as a “compromise,” while expressing concern about spending growth.

In all, the budget plan approved unanimously Tuesday by the Senate would increase overall state spending by $293 million – or 5 percent – over this year’s spending levels.

It would 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 receive even larger pay raises.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who helped cobble the spending bill together after a House-drafted budget deadlocked earlier this month, said it would provide necessary funding to address state needs.

He told the Journal after Tuesday night’s vote that he hopes the House will sign off on the bill.

“I hope that they accept this as a legitimate compromise that all parties can live with,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales said he and other GOP senators were involved in the budget talks, as were Cabinet secretaries from the Martinez administration.

“Hopefully, we made something everyone can live with and we can get out of here,” Ingle said in an interview. “Nobody got everything they wanted.”

The annual task of passing a budget has been complicated during this year’s legislative session by fierce disagreements over public education spending.

Some Democratic lawmakers have strongly objected to the Martinez administration’s request that more spending authority be given to the Public Education Department for school initiatives. Instead, they have sought to keep almost all education dollars flowing through a formula that distributes money among the state’s 89 school districts.

Under the Senate budget compromise, about $17.5 million would be tacked onto the House-drafted plan for the school initiatives sought by Martinez. Of that amount, roughly $7.2 million would be available for various training and retention initiatives, which could include the controversial concept of merit-based pay for teachers.

However, school districts would be able to decide whether to seek that funding. In addition, language would stipulate that not all of the $7.2 million could be used on any single program.

Martinez, the state’s first-term Republican governor, gave signs of support after Tuesday night’s Senate vote.

“While the governor remains concerned about the overall spending growth in this budget and its adverse impact on the state’s reserves, this budget does represent a compromise that properly acknowledges the importance of investing in education reforms and key job creation efforts, as well as efforts to expand New Mexico’s health care workforce in rural areas,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said.

Funding for the governor’s economic development initiatives includes $10 million for a grant program that is largely intended to help lure out-of-state companies to New Mexico.

During Tuesday night’s budget debate, Senate Democratic Whip Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque, tried to amend the budget bill so that all unspent appropriations would flow into the lottery scholarship fund, instead of a state reserve account.

“This is really a way to replenish and refresh that lottery fund and buy us a little more time,” Keller said before senators voted down the proposed amendment.

However, later Tuesday the Senate on a 31-11 vote passed and sent to the House a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, that would funnel a portion of future liquor tax revenue – without increasing the tax rate – to prop up the popular scholarship program.

Among other changes, the legislation also would reduce the scholarship to seven semesters of full tuition, instead of the current eight semesters, while requiring award recipients at four-year colleges to take 15 credit hours – up from 12 – to be eligible.

If the House makes any changes to the Senate-approved budget bill, the measure will have to go back to the Senate for final approval.

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