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$77 Million School Cuts Considered

By Dan Boyd
Journal Capitol Bureau
       SANTA FE — New Mexico public schools' funding would be slashed by nearly $77 million under a budget-balancing scenario likely to be on the table in deficit talks today.
    Education advocates say that would be devastating and could force schools to scrap student programs and cut back on the number of class days.
    Some lawmakers, however, say including schools in spending cuts might be the only way to close a $433 million state budget deficit when they convene a special legislative session next month.
    The budget-cutting scenario is not a formal proposal at this point, but it is expected to be discussed today when legislative negotiators meet with representatives of Gov. Bill Richardson on how to close the state budget gap.
    The Senate Finance Committee Chairman, John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, asked the Legislative Finance Committee to prepare the scenario including school cuts that would be part of a 3.5 percent across-the-board reduction for state government.
    The plan represents a sharply different approach than the one advocated by Richardson.
    The governor opposes using public education cuts to close the deficit, but many high-ranking lawmakers say education — which represents 43 percent of the state's $5.5 billion budget — has to be included.
    The difference of opinion looms as the largest of several sticking points between an executive branch task force appointed by Richardson and a bipartisan group of 12 legislators tasked with negotiating a strategy to balance the budget.
    The two sides will meet behind closed doors today for their third meeting, and administration officials say this session could be pivotal.
    "If we don't see some give on this particular issue, the governor would be inclined to call the session sooner rather than later," Finance and Administration Secretary Katherine Miller said Tuesday. Richardson would then push his plan to balance the budget without education cuts to all 112 legislators at a date in early October, she said.
    Top lawmakers, however, aren't shying away.
    "I don't think one can responsibly avoid cutting education," Smith said. "I think the governor deep down knows he needs to do this."
    Under the terms of the LFC-drafted scenario, the $77 million public education cut would represent a 3.5 percent rollback of the $2.2 billion approved for schools earlier this year. A similar cut for higher education would amount to about $30 million.
    Richardson has advocated some cuts in higher education spending — colleges and universities — but opposes any cuts in K-12 public education spending.
    The LFC scenario also reflects legislative disagreement with how to use federal stimulus money for public schools.
    Richardson's plan calls for $91 million in federal education stimulus money to be used during the current school year, while the LFC scenario would defer half that money until the following year.
    In its place, roughly $30 million in discretionary federal stimulus money under the executive branch's control would be reverted to the state's general fund.
    Richardson has already pledged some of that stimulus funding for certain projects, such as $8.9 million for a new initiative aimed at improving New Mexico's graduation rate and $2 million to help keep the College of Santa Fe open.
    "There isn't $30 million available," Miller said.
    Public employee unions and social advocacy groups have spoken out against spending cuts, saying such action could hurt outreach programs and cause layoffs or furloughs.
    A 3.5 percent cut to public education would probably force program cuts and increase the number of school districts that need emergency supplemental funding, said Sharon Morgan, president of the National Education Association-New Mexico.
    "Schools have already been cut to the bone," Morgan said Tuesday from Washington, D.C. "We can't take another one right now."

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