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NM House panel OKs budget, 4 percent spending hike

Barry Massey, Associated Press

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) -- State workers and educators in New Mexico will receive a 1 percent pay raise next year under a nearly $5.9 billion budget proposal that's heading to the House for consideration later this week.

The measure provides for a state spending increase of $239 million, or 4.2 percent, to finance education and government programs — from prisons and courts to health care — in the fiscal year starting in July.

The Appropriations and Finance Committee approved the budget Tuesday with only three Democrats — current and retired school workers — opposing the measure because of concerns about proposed education spending.

Republicans on the committee supported the bill, which calls for spending about $7 million more than GOP Gov. Susana Martinez had recommended to lawmakers.

The governor said she was pleased the budget included money for some of her education initiatives but cautioned that the bill still has a long journey ahead in the Legislature.

Once the budget clears the House, as expected, it goes to the Senate for consideration. The two chambers must agree on the same budget provisions before the bill heads to the governor.

The House committee left $19 million available for budget increases by the Senate and to offset possible tax cuts sought by the governor and legislators.

"I've always said my priorities are education reform and tax reform," Martinez told reporters. "If we're able to do that, we can certainly start looking at the 1 percent for the state employees."

Martinez did not propose pay raises for educators or government workers in her budget recommendations.

Because of tight finances and a weak state economy, the Democratic-controlled Legislature hasn't approved money for across-the-board pay raises for public employees since 2008.

Public schools and higher education account for nearly three-fifths of the proposed budget.

The budget allocates almost $2.6 billion for school operations, the Public Education Department and other educational programs. That's an increase of 4.6 percent or $112 million over current spending.

The state's network of colleges and universities would receive $786 million, a 3.8 percent increase.

About $932 million — a 3 percent increase — is for Medicaid, which provides health care for the poor and uninsured children.

The measure provides an increase of more than $22 million for early childhood programs, including child care assistance, prekindergarten, early literacy, and extending the school year for students in kindergarten through third grade in schools serving high-poverty areas.

Rep. Christine Trujillo, a retired educator and union leader, opposed the budget because it left money for a number of programs under the control of the Public Education Department, including $3 million for merit pay for teachers. She and other educators want as much money as possible to be distributed through the state's school funding formula, which leaves decision-making with local school districts rather than the Martinez administration.

"From my perspective, I believe we have done public education a disservice," Trujillo said.

The committee's Democratic leaders said the budget balanced the needs of public schools and the demands of the governor for control over some education spending.

"For some reason, public education has turned into a major battle between the schools, the superintendents and the secretary of education," said Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, a Santa Fe Democrat and committee deputy chairman.


Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP