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Governor calls for $6.5 billion in spending

Gov. Susana Martinez rolled out Tuesday a roughly $6.5 billion spending plan for the coming year that includes more money for New Mexico public schools, Medicaid and the state’s prison system, but no across-the-board salary increases for state workers.

The proposed budget would be a $228 million, or 3.7 percent, increase over current spending levels and includes “targeted” pay raises for certain state employees – including corrections officers, child abuse caseworkers and public health workers.

Roughly 3,500 workers would receive pay increases under the governor’s plan, although the size of the salary hikes would vary. There currently are more than 18,000 rank-and-file state employees.

Meanwhile, about three-quarters of the additional funding in the Martinez spending plan – a total of $170 million – would go toward public schools and Medicaid, a joint federal-state health care program.

The state’s Corrections Department and a tourist marketing initiative would be among the other state programs receiving a funding increase, although most agencies would not receive additional money.

“This is a prudent approach,” Martinez, the state’s two-term Republican governor, said of her spending plan during a Tuesday news conference in Albuquerque. “Spending a mile wide and an inch deep just isn’t going to cut it.”

However, an influential Democratic lawmaker said a volatile energy market, especially with regard to oil prices, could mean even less money to spend next year than currently projected and used as the basis for the Martinez spending blueprint.

“The big unknown factor is still the reliability of our revenues,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

He also said a legislative budget recommendation, expected to be unveiled next week, will call for $77 million of the additional spending to be made contingent on incoming revenue levels.

Under estimates released last month, lawmakers are expected to have $232 million in “new” money to spend in the coming budget year, which starts in July.

The new money figure – the difference between current spending and money projected to be available in the coming year – already has been pared back once due to plummeting oil prices and could be revised again after lawmakers convene in Santa Fe on Jan. 19 to begin a 30-day legislative session. The Legislature is required to approve a balanced budget every year.

Education spending

Funding for public schools has been a divisive topic in recent sessions, and Martinez’s spending plan includes funding to boost minimum teacher pay levels – from $34,000 to $36,000 per year – and expand both pre-kindergarten and K-3 Plus, a voluntary enrollment program that aims to narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and others.

It would also provide money to launch several new initiatives, including $10,000 stipends for as many as 50 public school teachers who get top marks on the state’s evaluation system and a $15,000 incentive for qualifying college students who pledge to teach in the state for at least three years after graduating.

“This budget prioritizes keeping our communities, families and children safe, while investing in critical education reforms to help our kids learn,” Martinez said in a statement.

Crime focus

The governor’s spending plan also calls for more money to be spent on capturing individuals who abscond from parole and to clear a hefty backlog of rape kits in police departments around the state.

House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, lauded the crime focus of the governor’s budget proposal, saying, “Her budget clearly demonstrates that she shares our goal of keeping our families safe from violent repeat offenders.”

But the executive director of the Democratic Party of New Mexico said the governor’s budget proposal does not do enough to address the state’s high poverty rate and job creation figures that have lagged behind those of neighboring states.

Other funding priorities in the governor’s spending plan include:

  • $12 million to hire more corrections officers and pay for hepatitis C treatment for inmates.
  • Up to $4 million to give new tax breaks, which could include an tax exemption for veterans’ retirement income.
  • $8 million to hire more caseworkers in the Children, Youth and Families Department and expand several existing CYFD programs.
  • $9 million to increase State Police officers’ salaries and allow for more cadet classes.

Although state spending has increased for four consecutive years, many state government employees have received only two salary increases in the past seven years.

Journal staff writer Maggie Shepard contributed to this report.