Legislative Finance Committee seeks 4.1% budget increase
All state employees and public school teachers would get a 1 percent pay raise under the budget proposed Wednesday by the Legislative Finance Committee.
The plan would increase overall spending by $233 million to $5.88 billion. That would be an increase of 4.1 percent.
State Sen. John Arthur Smith, the committee chairman, called the proposal a cautious one.
One reason, he said, is that about $6 billion from the federal government annually flows into New Mexico for schools, research laboratories, Air Force bases and other enterprises connected one way or another to Washington.
The uncertainty of what Congress will do to reduce the national deficit means the state cannot overspend, said Smith, D-Deming, right.
“We’re going to move gingerly, so to speak,” he said in outlining the budget proposal.
But, Smith said, the chance to add more money to education, public safety and Medicaid is possible this year because of one revenue-generating stalwart.
“The oil industry has been extremely generous to us,” he said of the booming times in southeastern New Mexico.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez still has to submit her proposed budget, but Smith said he expected a cooperative approach in reconciling whatever differences there are between her plan and the Legislature’s. The 60-day legislative session begins Tuesday.
Education at all levels would get a spending increase under the lawmakers’ proposal.
They recommend $2.5 billion for public schools. That would be an increase of 3.7 percent or $91 million.
Colleges and universities would get the same percentage increase for total funding of $785.5 million, or a jump of about $28 million.
Rep. Lucky Varela, D-Santa Fe, said a small raise for state employees was in order, given that the Legislature has not approved an increase for them since 2008.
“We balanced the budget on the backs of public employees and teachers,” said Varela, right.
Raises of 1 percent for teachers, school support staff and all state workers would cost $32.2 million.
In addition, the Legislative proposal would reverse a 2011 budget maneuver that transferred 1.5 percent of pension fund contributions to employees.
Legislators said the budget proposal was bipartisan, clearing the committee on a 16-0 vote.
But Varela publicly criticized the governor, who said she balanced the “largest structural deficit in New Mexico history” when she spoke last summer at the Republican National Convention.
“We balance the budget,” Varela said of legislators.
Martinez’s role is much less substantial, he said, as she makes small modifications to the overall spending plan through her power of veto.
Lawmakers want to increase Medicaid funding by almost $35 million, to $940 million.
Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, said that addition could help the state do a better job in mental health treatment.
Front-end recognition of mental health problems could stop violence or copycat mass shootings of the one last month at a Connecticut elementary school, Papen said.
The Department of Public Safety would get get a 3.7 percent increase. That money would go toward vehicle replacement, the pay raise and to improve recruitment of state police officers.
Smith said other police departments pay better than the state and are hiring in significant numbers, leading to a drain in New Mexico’s ranks. In his home county of Luna, Smith said, the U.S. Border Patrol has more than 400 officers — about as many as the total number of state police officers all across New Mexico.