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Martinez signs $6.2 billion state budget

Gov. Susana Martinez, joined by Republican lawmakers and cabinet secretaries, smiles after signing a ceremonial copy of a $6.2 billion budget for the coming year

Gov. Susana Martinez, joined by Republican lawmakers and cabinet secretaries, smiles after signing a ceremonial copy of a $6.2 billion budget for the coming year. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Gov. Susana Martinez signed into law Thursday a $6.2 billion spending plan for next year that will increase salary levels for State Police officers and new teachers in New Mexico, but offers no pay raises for rank-and-file state employees.

Faced with a murky state revenue picture due to a decrease in oil prices, lawmakers focused new spending on areas such as K-12 public schools, child protection services and programs intended to spur the state’s private sector economy, the governor said.

“We put our money where our mouth is, and we set our priorities,” Martinez told reporters at a Thursday news conference at the offices of an Albuquerque medical software company.

“We should always put our dollars where they matter the most, and that’s helping New Mexico families,” Martinez added.

While she approved the budget, Martinez used her line-item veto authority to axe about $8 million from the bill.

Items struck down included proposed pay raises for nurses working in state hospitals, about $1.3 million in a special appropriation for the Law Offices of the Public Defender and $750,000 in funding for magistrate courts statewide to address a shortfall for the rest of this year

Artie Pepin, director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said the $750,000 was needed to pay critical expenses over the next three months.

“Magistrate court workers may be furloughed and lease payments could be delayed on court buildings to make up for the budget shortfall,” Pepin said in a statement in response to the line-item vetoes.

Meanwhile, the public defender department will still see an overall funding increase, but not as large an increase as lawmakers had proposed.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, noted the governor’s line-item vetoes appeared to include several “jabs” at the state’s judicial branch.

“They’re such a small percentage of the state budget,” Smith told the Journal. “I don’t see why she wants to put salt on the wound, but that’s her call.”

Martinez has tangled with the judicial branch before, most recently after last year’s legislative session when a group of judges challenged her decision to strike down an 8 percent pay raise for judges. The Supreme Court ultimately partly overruled the veto and directed the state to provide the judicial pay raise in question.

In all, the budget approved this year by lawmakers calls for state spending to increase by roughly $84 million, or 1.3 percent, over current spending levels for the fiscal year that begins in July. It will mark the fourth consecutive year in which overall state spending has gone up but is a more modest increase than previous years.

Nearly half of the increased spending – $36.6 million of the $84 million – will go toward public schools, which currently make up about 44 percent of the state’s budget. Martinez cited money to help struggling readers, expand pre-kindergarten programs and combat truancy as key parts of the plan for education spending.

“This budget provides the tools we need to help them achieve their best and brightest potential in the classroom,” she said.

The second-term Republican governor also touted increased spending on programs aimed at spurring economic development as vital to reducing the state’s historic reliance on government spending.

“One thing is clear – we can no longer rely on Washington politicians to fuel our economy,” Martinez said Thursday, echoing a refrain she has voiced repeatedly in the past.

Specifically, the governor cited a bump in funding for a job-training assistance program and a huge jump in a so-called state “closing fund” spending – from $15 million in the current year to $37.5 million in the coming year – as critical to helping grow the state’s private sector economy.

The closing fund is actually a local government grant program aimed at deferring the cost of business expansion and relocation.

This year’s task of approving a balanced budget was complicated by the state’s cloudy finances.

A drop in oil prices caused revenue projections for the coming 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 about $83 million.

The governor faces a deadline of today to act on most legislation passed during this year’s 60-day session.

In addition to the budget, Martinez also signed 24 other bills Thursday, while vetoing four measures. There were still 59 bills awaiting action on the governor’s desk, however.