March 14, 2019

Senate, House differ on details of hefty state budget

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

The New Mexico House of Representatives rejected the Senate’s proposed budget on Wednesday, raising objections related to teacher pay, road funding and the pension plan for public employees.

The differences are not insurmountable, leaders in both chambers insisted, but they delayed final action on a whopping $7 billion spending plan.

The Senate approved its version earlier in the day with a vote of 39 to 2. But the House voted overwhelmingly against that budget, leaving some questions over how to divvy up appropriations as the state increases spending by 11 percent over the current fiscal year, with big boosts in funding to schools, infrastructure and child services.

“This isn’t war or anything,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Democrat from Gallup who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

But lawmakers were also quick to point to political disagreements lurking behind their policy differences. So, reconciling before the legislative session ends at noon Saturday will require some politically uncomfortable conversations. And while lawmakers have filed a flurry of bills, the budget is the one that really matters.

Talking to reporters on Wednesday night, Lundstrom raised several sticking points, including pay raises for teachers.

The version of the budget approved by the House provided a 6 percent raise across-the-board for teachers, principals and other school employees. The Senate tweaked the budget to call for an average 6 percent increase in salaries for staff. Lundstrom said that could mean some employees get less than 6 percent while others get more.

But senators counter that school superintendents prefer having that flexibility for budgeting purposes.

Also, the Senate budget only provided half as much an increase in payments into the state’s biggest public employee pension plans as the House approved.

Even the House version provided far less than was recommended by legislative aides to shore up systems that are currently underfunded to a point that have raised the eyebrows of the state’s lenders.

Lundstrom also raised objections to funding for road projects.

The version of the budget approved by the House called for dedicating $250 million in general fund money, much of it for specific road projects in each quarter of the state.

The Senate’s version keeps that lump sum in place but does not earmark specific amounts of money for specific projects.

Lundstrom argued that could mean some parts of the state get more money than others.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Democrat from Deming who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, contends the Department of Transportation knows better than individual lawmakers which projects are urgent and ready to go.

“They’re trying to dictate to the Department of Transportation in all six [transportation] districts the roads that possess the highest priority for them,” he said.

Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Democrat from Questa who is vice-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said many of those points are negotiable.

Tougher, he suggested, might be some of the political disagreements between the House and Senate.

For example, the Senate stripped out of the budget around $886,000 that the House had approved for more legislative staff and field offices.

“Senate members said, ‘no, we don’t feel comfortable with that.’ Still do,” said Cisneros.

Lundstrom said lawmakers want to provide better constituent services.

The Senate also stripped out a provision in the budget that Lundstrom in particular had supported that would require the University of New Mexico restore sports that regents voted last year to cut as part of belt-tightening.

So, in the end, this biggest disagreements may be philosophical.

“We’re probably talking about $3 million out a $7 billion budget,” Smith said.

Groups of lawmakers from the House and Senate budget committees will meet to hash out an agreement.

Speaker Brian Egolf tapped Lundstrom to lead the House’s delegation with Rep. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, D-Taos, and Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, the Republican in the House for the Senate version of the budget.

The Senate will appoint its group in the next few days.

The discussions will come as the Legislature wraps up the budgeting process amid a budget surplus, with an estimated $1.1 billion in new funds available for the next fiscal year.

The Senate approved a separate piece of legislation Wednesday using some of the state’s surplus to split $30 million equally between members for them to earmark for causes around New Mexico as each sees fit.

Senators also passed more than $930 million in infrastructure funding, known as capital outlay, for everything from roads to high-speed internet and solar panels.