New Mexico House panel OKs budget

NM House committee approves state budget proposal for nearly 4% spending increase next year

Associated Press

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) -- A more than $5 billion New Mexico budget proposal is back on track in the House and the spending blueprint leaves nearly $42 million available for possible tax cuts advocated by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and legislators.

The budget was unanimously approved Monday by the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and sent to the 70-member House for debate and a vote, which likely will happen later this week.

The measure allocates about $5.6 billion for public education and government programs, including courts and prisons, in the budget year starting July 1. That provides for a spending increase of nearly 4 percent, or $215 million.

The proposal doesn't spend all the new revenues that are anticipated next year, leaving $41.8 million for budget increases when the Senate considers the bill or to offset the costs of tax cuts.

If lawmakers agree on reducing taxes, those proposals will be handled in separate legislation rather than being part of the budget. The governor has proposed $55 million in tax cuts for businesses and veterans. Democratic lawmakers also are pushing a wide range of tax relief measures.

The budget was on hold last week in the committee while lawmakers wrangled over a provision that would have withheld money for several of the governor's initiatives if the state's financial revenue weakened.

That provision was dropped from the bill endorsed on Monday, but lawmakers agreed on another safety valve if finances deteriorate. The budget will allow the governor to make across-the-board spending cuts to balance the budget if revenues unexpectedly drop.

However, several programs and agencies will be protected from cutbacks: Medicaid, which provides health care for the poor and uninsured children; services for the developmentally disabled; state prisons; state police and law enforcement in the Department of Public Safety; and agencies with a budget of less than $5 million, which includes many district courts and district attorney offices.

Some lawmakers have expressed concerns the state might not collect as much money as expected next year because natural gas prices have been falling. However, the latest financial forecast calls for revenues to hold steady at nearly $5.7 billion next year.

Public education accounts for the largest share of the proposed budget. Schools, the Public Education Department and other educational programs will receive about $2.4 billion, an increase of 3.8 percent or $89 million.

The measure earmarks $8.5 million to help children improve their reading in early grades, which is less than the $12.4 million requested by the governor. About $3.5 million is provided for the governor's initiatives to help struggling schools and $2.5 million will pay for more frequent testing of students in grades 4-10. The governor told reporters on Monday she was pleased the committee agreed to have her administration allocate the money to school districts rather than having it distributed through the state's school funding formula.

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