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Thursday, February 27, 2003

Budget Plan on Way to House

By Barry Massey
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE A budget package providing for a nearly 4 percent increase in spending next year on public schools and government programs is heading to the House for consideration.
    The House Appropriations and Finance Committee unanimously endorsed the budget bill Wednesday. The full House is likely to debate the measure by the end of the week.
    The proposal will allocate slightly more than $4 billion in state money for public schools, higher education, the judiciary and government programs ranging from prisons to tourism in the fiscal year starting July 1.
    The spending recommendations for public education reflect several of Gov. Bill Richardson's initiatives, including 6 percent pay raises for teachers and requiring school districts to use part of their cash balances to pay for expenses next year and to reallocate part of their budgets to direct more money to classroom expenditures.
    The House budget package would pay for many of the school improvements, including the 6 percent pay raises and boosting minimum teacher salaries to $30,000 as the first step in a career pay plan linked to a competency-based teaching licensing system.
    Key provisions of the committee's budget proposal include:
   
  • Nearly $75 million increase in state aid to public schools next year, a 4.1 percent increase. Spending would total nearly $1.9 billion, representing almost half the state's general budget account. The Senate has approved a separate education spending measure that calls for an $84 million, or 4.7 percent increase.
       
  • Using the state's entire annual allotment of tobacco settlement revenues for spending on programs, including more for Medicaid. The tobacco settlement permanent fund would remain intact. The $57 million in the fund would be counted as part of the state's cash reserves and could be used to cover budget shortfalls with approval of the Legislature. Richardson wants to abolish the fund and use the money for spending increases, such as Medicaid. Separate legislation is pending to carry out the permanent fund change assumed in the House budget plan. Richardson said the House proposal was a "step in the right direction, but I want it to go further."
       
  • Require 6 percent average salary increases for teachers and instructional personnel, which includes librarians and counselors. The bill calls for the increases to take effect in November. Lawmakers are providing enough money for the pay increases to cover about two-thirds of a year. That's a way for lawmakers to help balance the budget next year, but commit the state to 6 percent raises.
       
  • 3 percent average pay raises for other educational workers, including administrators, which would take effect with the new fiscal year in July.
       
  • 2 percent average pay raises for higher education faculty, state agency, legislative and judicial employees. Committee members anticipate the raises will be boosted to 2.5 percent because a separate spending bill in the Senate will provide money for an additional one-half percent increase.
       
  • School districts must use $16.4 million of cash reserves to help cover budget increases next year. Districts also must reallocate 1 percent of their budgets, $18 million statewide, to classroom expenses, which is mainly teacher salaries.