Governor says she has plan to fund higher education in NM

SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez said Wednesday that she has a plan to restore funding for New Mexico colleges and universities, after using her line-item veto authority last month to ax all money for higher education from a $6.1 billion budget plan approved by the Legislature.

But top Democratic lawmakers said they had not seen the governor’s plan, while pointing out that the state Supreme Court is preparing to take up a court challenge the Legislature filed against Martinez’s budget vetoes.

“I’m a little leery of where she’s at, and I’m patient enough to let the courts resolve this,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming. “I think she’s just trying to cut her losses.”

Martinez, the state’s two-term Republican governor, said Wednesday that her plan would avoid tax increases and would instead rely on closing tax “loopholes” to fund colleges and universities. Those loopholes could include tax breaks for hospitals and health care providers.

The proposed plan would have to be approved by lawmakers during a special session that Martinez has not yet called – she has vowed to do so soon – and does not yet have bipartisan support among lawmakers.

The Governor’s Office said it is supported by the House’s top Republican – House Minority Leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque.

“I’m proud that we’ve been able to come to this agreement – as I’ve said all along, we need to make sure that we balance our budget without raising taxes on our families and businesses, and that’s exactly what this plan does,” Martinez said.

She also expressed optimism that Democratic legislative leaders would get on board, saying, “I hope that Democratic lawmakers will join us in this plan to come together and put New Mexicans first.”

The governor’s plan would essentially bring back the same amount of proposed funding she vetoed – $744.8 million for colleges and universities for the budget year that starts July 1. It would also increase state funding for the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center by $1 million – roughly $2.5 million in general fund money was included in the budget bill – and provide more money for financial aid programs.

Gentry said the proposal represents real concessions by the Martinez administration – a sign of the governor’s willingness to reach agreement with the Legislature.

“She’s showing that she’s willing to make some compromises,” Gentry said in an interview. “This is very similar to what the House majority passed.”

Increasing funding for the cancer center and student financial aid, he said, is a worthwhile use of public money.

“Anybody would be crazy to oppose it,” Gentry said of the proposal.

Martinez’s budget vetoes have received national scrutiny, but the Governor’s Office has maintained funding for all colleges and universities will be provided via a stand-alone appropriations bill and that there will be no interruption in services.

However, top Democratic legislators, who have sparred with the Martinez administration for months over the state’s budget crunch, have described the vetoes as unnecessary and damaging.

“The governor is playing games with the future of our college and university students,” Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said in a recent interview.

New Mexico university leaders have also expressed concern about planning with the start of the state’s new budget year less than two months away and several universities around the state have recently approved tuition hikes.

Marc Saavedra, executive director of the New Mexico Council of University Presidents, said higher education leaders are prepared to absorb a 1 percent funding reduction – the amount originally in the legislative spending bill – but have cautioned against additional cuts. The governor’s proposal includes a 1 percent cut.

New Mexico colleges and universities have already seen their state funding slashed by 7.2 percent over the past two years as legislators grapple with a revenue downturn caused largely by plummeting oil and natural gas prices.

The Supreme Court has set oral arguments for May 15 in the Legislature’s case against the governor, which hinges on whether Martinez overstepped her authority by vetoing all proposed funding – roughly $775 million – from legislative branch agencies, and colleges and universities.

Legislative agencies were not included in the plan the governor announced Wednesday, but are also expected to be funded in a special session.

In addition to her budget vetoes, Martinez also vetoed a $350 million package of tax and fee increases approved by lawmakers during this year’s 60-day session that was intended to help pay for state government operations.

Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Dan McKay contributed to this report.

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