Friday, February 21, 2003
School Budget Divides Senate
By Barry Massey
The Associated Press
SANTA FE A package of school finance and reform measures are heading to the Senate for what will probably be a divisive debate over tapping into a state permanent fund to provide more money for public education.
The Senate Finance Committee approved a proposed budget measure to provide a 4.7 percent increase in spending, or an additional $84 million, for public schools in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Sen. Ben Altamirano, D-Silver City, the committee chairman, said the school budget proposal was the product of negotiations with Gov. Bill Richardson, school administrators and Senate leaders.
The committee also forwarded to the Senate a proposed constitutional amendment to increase the amount that is annually distributed from the Land Grant Permanent Fund for schools, universities and several other governmental institutions. The amount would go from 4.7 percent to 6 percent of the five-year average fund balance providing an estimated $77 million a year extra for public schools.
Also sent to the full Senate was a proposed constitutional amendment to change the governing structure of public education. The measure would create a Cabinet-level secretary of education who is appointed by the governor and convert the state Board of Education into an elected 10-member advisory commission.
Richardson has insisted on a governance change that would establish an education secretary who answers to the governor.
The proposal to tap into the permanent fund sparked heated debate and the committee advanced the measure to the Senate without a recommendation of whether it should be approved.
Sen. Timothy Jennings, D-Roswell, objected to increasing the payout from the permanent fund, which he said would leave less money available for programs in the future.
"I have a problem violating a trust I have with a future generation," said Jennings. "Let's not rob from the children and the people who are yet to come to New Mexico. We should pay as we go."
David Harris, the governor's deputy chief of staff and a top budget adviser, said Richardson would consider using more permanent fund revenues for education if the proposal is tied to a school reform package, including a governance change.
Pending in the House is a school improvement package that would establish a new three-tier licensing system for teachers and a career salary plan.
Critics of the proposed education budget said it relied too much on one-time monies $16.4 million in cash reserves from schools and a reallocation of $18 million, or 1 percent, from existing school budgets to classroom expenditures to pay for proposed operational increases next year such as raises for teachers.
The committee's school finance proposal provides for 6 percent average teacher salary increases starting in December, and 3 percent average pay raises for other educational workers. State spending on public education would total nearly $1.9 billion under the measure.
The House Appropriations and Finance Committee reviewed similar school spending proposals on Thursday. The panel chairman, Rep. Max Coll, D-Santa Fe, said using one-time monies for teacher pay raises and other education increases would leave the state facing a budget squeeze in coming years.
"We're going to be back cutting budgets probably," said Coll.