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$6.3B budget bill approved in House

SANTA FE – Arguably the biggest bill of the 30-day legislative session – both in terms of dollars and importance – is headed to the New Mexico Senate after being approved Saturday on the House floor.

A $6.3 billion spending plan for the coming budget year passed the House on a largely party-line 38-31 vote, with most House Democrats voting against it and some trying to make changes to the bill.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, called the plan a “tea party budget,” saying it would not help vulnerable New Mexicans.

“The economy does not magically grow when you shrink government to the bone,” Maestas said during Saturday’s three-hour debate.

But Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and architect of the bill, said the budget plan prioritizes spending on key areas: public schools, Medicaid, early childhood programs and public safety.

“We did the best we could with the revenues that are there,” Larrañaga said, alluding to the fact that plummeting oil and natural gas prices have forced state revenue projections to be pared back twice in the past two months.

In all, the budget bill would increase state spending by about $81 million – or 1.3 percent – over this year’s levels. It would increase funding for K-12 schools and prisons, among other agencies, but would trim the budgets of universities.

More than half of the increased spending would come from a one-time plan – included in a separate bill that also passed the House on Saturday – to take money from various state government accounts.

State Police officers and corrections officers at state-run prisons would receive pay increases under the plan, but most rank-and-file state workers would not get raises.

In addition, Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, expressed concern that proposed spending levels for behavioral health programs would not be sufficient to pay for homeless housing, addiction recovery and other services.

“That bat’s too heavy for me to swing,” Garcia Richard said. “I cannot support a proposal that leaves these very critical needs out.”

House Democrats’ attempt to amend the budget bill would have increased funding for behavioral health programs, in large part by delaying a pending decrease in the state’s corporate income tax rate.

The money freed up by such a move – an estimated $20 million – also would have been used to increase state spending on Medicaid, the joint federal-state program that provides health care coverage to roughly 848,000 New Mexicans.

While state Medicaid spending would increase by about $35 million next year under the House-approved budget, that would not be enough to keep up with the skyrocketing enrollment. As a result, the Human Services Department has warned lawmakers that reimbursement rates would have to be cut for Medicaid providers.

That could lead to higher co-pays and insurance premiums for state residents, Democratic lawmakers said.

But House Republicans said delaying the pending corporate income tax cut would not guarantee the dollars promised.

“Even if we did get this passed and signed into law, the $20 million might not materialize,” said Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho.

The proposed amendment failed on a straight party-line vote.

Meanwhile, Reps. Dona Irwin of Deming and Tomás Salazar of Las Vegas were the two House Democrats who voted in favor of the spending bill. All House Republicans present for Saturday’s vote cast “yes” votes.

The $6.3 billion budget, House Bill 2, now goes to the Senate, where it’s expected to be revised. The 30-day legislative session ends Feb. 18.