February 24, 2015

State budget proposal passes House

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The Roundhouse Rotunda. Photo by Matthew Reichbach

Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, sponsored the chamber’s ultimately successful budget bill, which totals more than $6.2 billion and includes an increase of $81.7 million over last year.

Three hours of debate centered on divisive spending priorities, particularly the House Appropriations and Finance Committee’s apportioning of $36.5 million in new money for public schools. All but $8.3 million of those new funds would be directed toward program priorities of Gov. Susana Martinez and her Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera, many of which have received criticism by teachers and some school district leaders.

Larrañaga described his budget measure as “balanced” and “well thought-out,” with increases for road projects, child protective services and higher education endowments, plus $9.5 million more for college financial aid. But House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, offered rebuttals in the form of two budget amendments, both of which were greeted with skepticism and even rancor by Republicans.

Neither amendment would affect the bill’s final accounting, said Egolf, but they would reduce the state’s emphasis on standardized school testing, as well as move more public education funding out from under the state Public Education Department’s control and into the hands of local school districts.

Egolf’s first amendment also called for state lottery scholarship increases, funding for homeless veterans’ services, and the restoration of previously cut funding for public television and radio programming.

Back-and-forth over public education policy echoed debates from previous legislative sessions since Martinez and her controversial public education secretary have been in office. Republican lawmakers depicted Egolf’s amendment as an irresponsible ploy that cut much needed funding for new public school interventions.

Egolf countered that his proposal meant “increasing funding in a way that maximizes classroom expenditure and local control.” A heated discussion over the amendment’s prospects for restoring school athletic program funding levels chilled quickly as Egolf ceded the House floor for a question from  Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque.

“That’s a very loose interpretation,” said Hall after Egolf introduced him as “my friend.”

When Egolf’s first amendment failed along party lines, he offered a second alternative, this one centered on community development priorities identified by the Democrats’ Native American Caucus. Line-item funding requests for suicide prevention initiatives and programs spearheaded by Native American faculty in response to tribal leaders, said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, would constitute “a drop in the multi-million dollar budget.”

GOP House members weren’t buying it, pointing to months of meticulous considerations over how to incorporate education funding raises alongside increases for economic development, education and public health and safety. They also pointed out that Larrañaga’s bill was okayed by both Democrats and Republicans on the House Finance and Appropriations Committee.

That bipartisanship thinned by the time the final vote was cast tonight, with five Democrats joining Republicans for final passage of the bill.

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