$6.2 billion budget sent to governor

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SANTA FE — The New Mexico House of Representatives on Wednesday sent a $6.2 billion state budget bill to Gov. Susana Martinez, who called the spending plan a “good compromise” providing for key needs.

The 30-day legislative session ends at noon today, with the Republican governor’s final say on the budget still to come.

With adjournment nearing, lawmakers were scrambling to agree on a solvency fix for the state’s cash-strapped lottery scholarship program.

Meanwhile, a proposal to submit a minimum wage increase to voters failed on a busy day in the House, while the Senate decisively voted down a gambling compact for the Navajo Nation.

The Senate on a 42-0 vote passed and returned to the House for concurrence an amended, $233 million package of public works projects. The package, to be financed mostly with severance tax bonds, included $86 million for water projects.

The budget for the coming fiscal year appeared to be a rare bipartisan deal in a session full of deadlock, as House members voted 58-8 in favor of the spending plan approved unanimously in the Senate a day earlier.

A spokesman for Martinez, who had opposed a House-drafted budget plan that stalled earlier this month, gave signs of support for the new-look bill lawmakers sent her Wednesday.

“This budget properly prioritizes 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.

However, Knell said the Republican governor remains concerned about the total spending growth in the budget and said Martinez will scrutinize it closely before March 12, her deadline to act on legislation approved during the session’s final days.

Top-ranking House Democrats said the budget would help invigorate the state’s economy, in part by providing 3 percent pay raises for all state workers and teachers. State Police and social workers would be among those in line for even larger pay hikes.

“This is an initiative that will move New Mexico forward and put us on the path to recovery,” said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe.

In all, the budget proposal endorsed Wednesday would increase state spending for the coming fiscal year by $293 million — or 5 percent — over this year’s spending levels. Nearly $171 million of that increased spending would go toward K-12 education.

All eight of the “no” votes on the budget on the House floor were cast by GOP lawmakers, some of whom raised concern about the possibility of decreased state revenue because of falling oil and natural gas prices.

“I think 5 percent growth in the budget in a year our economy is struggling might be a little bit excessive,” said House Republican Leader Donald Bratton of Hobbs.

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

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

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

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

The educational portion of the budget was praised Wednesday by one of the state’s largest teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico.

Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, also claimed the bill would give school districts much-needed flexibility, saying, “I think education will be much improved with this budget.”

In other legislative action Wednesday:

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From left, legislative budget analysts David Abbey, Michael Burkhart and Bill Valdes answer questions in the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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