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House Panel May Have Struck Compromise on Budget

SANTA FE – Democrats and Republicans who sit on a key New Mexico House committee suggested Thursday that they have resolved a stalemate on a $5.6 billion budget bill, paving the way for a possible vote on the annual spending measure Monday.

A disagreement over what should happen if the state does not receive as much tax revenue as projected next year – due to volatile energy prices or other causes – caused budget talks to break down earlier this week.

But top-ranking members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee said the impasse has been broken.

At a glance
The House Appropriations and Finance Committee, which has 10 Democrats and eight Republicans, had yet to vote on a spending bill for the coming year as of Thursday. Here are some expected features of the bill:
⋄  $5.6 billion in state spending
⋄  $215 million of appropriated “new” money
⋄  About $50 million to boost the state’s contribution to the retirement plans of public employees, including teachers

“We’ve met with the Republicans, and we’ve come to an agreement,” said Rep. Henry “Kiki” Saavedra, D-Albuquerque, the committee’s chairman.

Lawmakers were tight-lipped Thursday about the terms of the deal, which could still be changed – or undone – before a vote is taken on the bill.

Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro, said the primary point of contention between lawmakers of the two parties was the Democrats’ inclusion of language that would have cut funding for initiatives backed by Gov. Susana Martinez – including more money for education intervention programs – if revenue levels fall short of projections.

After Republicans balked at that approach, Tripp said the bill’s wording was changed to mandate more broad-based spending reductions if incoming tax dollars come up short.

Members of the House budget committee, where the annual spending bill typically originates, had hoped to approve the budget and have it moved on to the Senate by Wednesday, the midpoint of the current 30-day legislative session.

However, budget-minded lawmakers said Thursday that they are not overly concerned about missing the self-imposed deadline. Less than two weeks remains in the legislative session, which ends Feb. 16.

“There’s plenty of time,” Tripp said.

House Democratic leader Ken Martinez of Grants said members of the Senate, where the spending bill will head following a vote in the House, have been involved in the budget talks.

“I don’t think there’s any concern of a bottleneck,” Martinez said.

Recent revenue estimates by executive and legislative economists project the state will have about $250 million in “new” money for the fiscal year that begins in July. New money is the difference between incoming revenue predicted to flow into the state’s coffers and already-approved spending levels for the current year.

Under the spending bill crafted by the House budget panel and awaiting a final vote, about $215 million of that money would be appropriated, said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe.

Most of those spending increases would go toward public schools and Medicaid, which make up more than half of the state’s budget. The remainder of the new money could then be used to fund tax breaks proposed by Martinez and others, including a gross receipts tax exemption for more than 40,000 small businesses.
— This article appeared on page A4 of the Albuquerque Journal

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