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State budget blueprint moves forward

SANTA FE – A $6.2 billion spending plan is on its way to the House floor after being approved Friday by a key committee with strong bipartisan support.

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted 15-1 to approve the budget bill, which would raise pay for State Police officers and starting teachers, but provide no pay increases for rank-and-file state workers.

The measure would increase state spending by $81.7 million over this year’s levels.

“We did an awful lot with not very much money,” Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, the panel’s deputy chairman, said after Friday’s vote. “It was a true bipartisan effort.”

Some Democratic lawmakers voiced concern about the amount of public school dollars that would be controlled by the Public Education Department for initiatives pushed by Gov. Susana Martinez, including a stipend program to lure teachers to poorly performing schools.

Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, who cast the lone “no” vote on the committee, said the roughly $8 million in increased spending for such programs – out of a $36.6 million proposed increase in total K-12 spending – was a sticking point for her.

“I think local control has just not been respected and we as a governing body … have deferred too much of the decision-making to PED,” Trujillo said.

A Martinez spokesman indicated the Republican governor largely supports the budget plan.

“It’s a strong compromise that prioritizes job creation, child well-being, and investments in reforming and improving education,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said. “These are key priorities.”

This year’s task of approving a balanced budget has been complicated by cloudy state finances. A drop in oil prices caused revenue projections for the coming budget year to be scaled back twice – new money for next year was projected to be $141 million in December and had been pegged at $285 million last summer. It is now estimated to be roughly $83 million.

The budget plan approved Friday would spend most of that new money, while also tapping into some funding that is expected to be left over from this year’s budget.

Most of a $35 million earmark for a state “closing fund,” actually a grant program aimed at paying for business relocation or expansion costs, would come from such surplus money.

Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, said the economic development dollars included in the budget helped persuade her to vote for the bill, despite concerns over education and funding for the courts.

“In the end, it wasn’t, I think, what they needed,” she said of the judicial branch.

While the House panel’s plan would provide more money for statewide drug courts than was recommended by Martinez, court officials said a decrease in funding for computer technology efforts at the Administrative Office of the Courts could mean furloughs for some workers.

The budget is expected to be voted on by the full House by early next week. If approved, it would advance to the Senate.