February 10, 2018

Senate committee caves to governor’s demand for more police pay, DA funds

A Senate committee bent Saturday to calls by Gov. Susana Martinez for more funding for state police pay and the District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, as well as calls from some fellow lawmakers to restore at least some of the funding cut from school districts last year.

In announcing its version of the budget passed by the state House of Representatives late last month, the Senate Finance Committee seemed intent on maintaining the tenuous peace that has set in at the Roundhouse in the wake of the partisan clashes of the last few years.

The budget would amount to about $6.3 billion and, according to the Senate Finance Committee, leave reserves around 10 percent. It would amount to about a 4 percent increase in spending over the current fiscal year.

The House passed its version of the spending plan by a vote of 65-3 on Jan. 31. But aides to Martinez were quick to call it “soft on crime.”

And the Senate Finance Committee’s version would ratchet up a few of the pay raises approved by the House.

State police and corrections officers would see an 8.5 percent pay increase instead of 6.5 percent.

The Martinez administration had argued the House budget did not do enough to address public safety, a priority amid rising crime rates.

For example, it argued pay raises for state police were not big enough. And it argued the budget approved by the state House on Jan. 31 did not include enough funding for the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque.

The Martinez administration had called for $23.5 million — an increase of 29.4 percent.

The House’s budget provided $19.4 million, spurring denunciations from some advocates for crime victims and an editorial from KOAT-TV. It began to seem that funding for the district attorney in Albuquerque could end up becoming the sticking point for the state’s entire budget.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers grumbled that the governor’s stand comes after she did not seek any additional funds for the office last year or the year before that or the year before that. And some questioned why the state should pour so much extra money into the District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque when outlying communities such as Taos and Gallup have even higher crime rates.

The Senate Finance Committee’s version of the budget would get closer to the governor’s recommendation, providing $21.4 million.

A spokesman for the governor said Saturday that her office was still reviewing the proposal.

“However, the Governor has made it clear New Mexicans deserve a budget that focuses on fighting crime, prioritizes education and grows our economy,” communications director Larry Behrens said in an email.

The Senate Finance Committee’s budget also includes $10 million to make up for about $40 million cut from the savings accounts of public school districts around New Mexico last year to shore up the state budget. It also would add about $6 million for universities.

About $45 million in local revenue and other funds would be earmarked for addressing the pending collapse of a brine well near Carlsbad.

The proposed spending plan also provides funds for specific programs the Martinez administration had touted, such as $250,000 for tourism advertising.

And Spaceport America, which was already in line for $10 million to build a hangar under the House budget, will see an even bigger increase to its share of the general fund meant for operational costs — from $375,900 this year to $975,900 next year.

The Senate Finance Committee approved its changes to the House version of the budget without any objection from Republicans or Democrats. The budget heads next to a vote in the Senate, likely Monday night or Tuesday. If it passes, the House would have to approve the changes.

The 30-day legislative session ends at noon Thursday.

So far, there has been little appetite among legislators for the sort of battle that played out last year, when Martinez vetoed funding for higher education and called lawmakers back into special session.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, a Democrat from Deming, suggested Saturday that lawmakers would not stand for that kind of maneuvering this year.

“I think the governor better scrutinize this slowly before she does something like that,” Smith said after the committee hearing Saturday.

And there are not the financial pressures of last year, either. The budget proposal comes after a rebound in the state government’s revenues.

Lower oil and gas prices in the last few years left the state strapped for cash, leading to rounds of budget cuts, the depletion of the government’s reserves and partisan fights at the Roundhouse.

As oil and gas prices have improved, the Permian Basin has boomed, the state’s job market has begun to improve and the state has seen higher revenues again.

Once the legislative session was underway, economists announced they expected to see $93 million more than expected, or a total of $6.37 billion in revenue during the fiscal year that begins in July.

Still, Smith noted causes for concern. The price of oil is on the slide again, he said.

Though Martinez has touted her administration as helping to diversify the economy, Smith countered: “Our numbers are reflecting we’re totally reliant on oil and gas.”

That calls for keeping reserves in the double-digits, he said, to provide a cushion against another downturn in the price of oil.

Meanwhile, the state is facing sizable challenges to its tax levies and a lawsuit that could upend its formula for funding schools and, in turn, require New Mexico’s government devote more money to public education.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.

By the numbers

Pay raise for state employees: 2%

Pay raise for teachers: 2.5%

Pay raise for state police under the House budget: 6.5%

Under the Senate budget: 8.5%

Pay raise for judges under the House budget: 4.5%

Under the Senate budget: 6.5%

Spaceport’s share of the general fund in the House budget: $675,900

Under the Senate budget: $975,900

Funding for Albuquerque’s district attorney in the House budget: $19.4 million

In the Senate proposal: $21.4 million