New Mexico Senate approves $6.2 billion budget

February 18, 2014 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The state Senate unanimously approved a proposed $6.2 billion budget on Tuesday that would provide at least 3 percent pay raises next year for New Mexico government workers and educators.

The budget is the main assignment for lawmakers in the 30-day session, which ends on Thursday.

The bill now heads to the House, which deadlocked earlier this month on a separate plan for financing the state government.

The measure provides for a $293 million, or 5 percent, increase in spending on public schools, colleges and government programs — from prisons to health care — in the fiscal year starting July 1.

Democrats and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez have been at odds over spending on the [auth] governor’s education initiatives, including merit pay.

However, the Senate-passed bill made concessions to the administration.

“While the governor remains concerned about the overall spending growth in this budget and its adverse impact on the state’s reserves, this budget does represent a compromise that properly acknowledges the importance of investing in education reforms and key job creation efforts, as well as efforts to expand New Mexico’s health care workforce in rural areas,” said Enrique Knell, a spokesman for Martinez.

The budget plan allocates nearly $21 million for a broad range of programs to help recruit and retain teachers, assist struggling students and schools, and focus on dropout prevention and preparing students for college and careers.

The Public Education Department would have flexibility to distribute the money based on proposals submitted by local school districts, including possible pay incentives.

Public schools account for the largest share of state spending — about $2.7 billion, or a 6.6 percent increase over current spending.

Most of the money will be distributed to schools through a funding formula that aims to equalize educational opportunities across the state.

The governor had asked lawmakers to provide a $55 million increase for targeted school improvement initiatives that would be allocated by her administration rather than funneling the money through the funding formula, which leaves spending decisions to local districts.

The Senate-passed budget provides for a $38 million increase in programs administered by the Public Education Department, including $5 million for a new teacher evaluation system that has been heavily criticized by educators and Democrats because it relies heavily on student performance on standards-based tests.

“Building our education system is as important to building our economy as any business tax cut, a friendly business environment,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the committee that assembled the budget.

The bill also provides $11.5 million to help shore up a lottery-financed college scholarship program.

The measure provides for 3 percent cost-of-living salary increases for state agency workers, teachers and other educational employees next year.

However, there would be larger raises for certain government jobs, including 8 percent for judges, district attorneys, state police and motor-transportation officers.

Prison guards, juvenile-justice officers, social workers handling child abuse cases and educational assistants in schools would get 6 percent pay increases.

The Senate took the lead in developing a budget after the House was unable to approve a spending plan developed by one of its committee earlier this month. House Republicans objected that the committee’s spending plan shortchanged the governor’s education initiatives.

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