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Lawmakers raid state coffers for $6.3B spending plan

SANTA FE – With projected revenue levels plummeting in recent weeks, New Mexico lawmakers are scraping under the pillows of state government to come up with funding to keep day-to-day operations running – and growing, in a few cases.

A $6.3 billion spending plan approved Thursday in a key House committee on a 12-5 vote would increase funding for public schools, prisons and Medicaid but would cut state spending levels for universities and behavioral health programs.

The measure relies largely on taking dollars from various state government accounts, including at least $1 million from a consumer protection fund managed by Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office.

Balderas said Thursday that the funding shift is unreasonable, given that the Attorney General’s Office relies on the fund to help support its operations.

Public schools: $31.2 million increase
Medicaid: $38.5 million increase
Prisons: $12.1 million increase
Universities: $3.1 million decrease

“Sweeping this fund puts public safety at great risk for New Mexico families and children by weakening the ability of my office to litigate on behalf of consumers and pursue the prosecution of those who seek to harm New Mexicans,” Balderas said in a statement.

However, some of the money being targeted for “sweeps” would come from unspent funds. A total of $52 million would be shifted for the coming fiscal year.

That includes more than $3.2 million that was appropriated in 2008, but never spent, for improving roads and bridges in Lincoln and Otero counties, after heavy flooding hit the area.

Overall, the budget bill would boost state spending next year by about $81 million – or 1.3 percent – over current levels.

“I think this is the best we could do with the revenues we have,” said Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

But some Democratic members of the budget-writing committee objected to the cuts included in the spending bill for the coming fiscal year, which starts in July.

All five of the “no” votes against the budget bill were cast by Democratic lawmakers, although three Democrats did vote in favor. All nine Republicans on the committee voted in favor of the spending plan.

At a news conference before the budget vote, some Democrats pointed out that, under the spending bill, the funding growth for the state corrections system would be larger, percentage-wise, than the growth for public schools and other programs.

“We need to start focusing on long-term solutions, not Band-Aids that aren’t working,” said House Minority Whip Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque.

Most rank-and-file state employees would not receive pay raises under the budget bill. The only workers getting salary increases would be corrections officers in state-run prisons and State Police officers.

The spending plan, House Bill 2, is expected to be voted upon Saturday on the House floor. If approved, it would then move on to the Senate.