The New Mexico Senate and House of Representatives appeared to have an agreement on a $7 billion state budget late Friday after ironing out differences over pay for educators, funding for roads and college athletics.
In the end, the biggest sticking point turned out to be a tiny but politically fraught piece of the spending plan: $700,000 for legislators to hire additional staff.
The House passed the budget Feb. 21 and the Senate approved a series of changes on Wednesday. But the House did not accept those changes, spurring a round of negotiations between members of the budget committees in both chambers in an effort to reach consensus before the legislative session ends at noon Saturday.
The disagreements were minor compared to the budget standoffs between Democratic lawmakers and former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
But the differences would still hit the pocketbooks of some New Mexicans.
Pay raises for teachers were one big sticking point.
The version of the budget approved by the Senate said districts should ensure an average salary increase of 6 percent. The House plan called for educators as well as other school staff to get an across-the-board 6 percent increase in salary.
House Appropriations and Finance Committee Chairwoman Patricia Lundstrom raised concerns that the Senate proposal might leave some employees with larger raises and others with smaller increases.
A negotiating committee chaired by Lundstrom — three members each from the House and Senate — agreed to go back to the House version. This would guarantee 6 percent raises across the board for school personnel. Raises for superintendents would be up to school boards.
If signed as is by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the budget would include nearly $450 million in new funding for public education as well as raises of around 4 percent for many other public employees while also increasing funding for child protective services and Medicaid.
The budget also includes $250 million from the state’s general fund for road projects.
House members and senators disagreed over how exactly to split up that money, however.
The House version of the budget allocated specific amounts of money to specific road projects. But the Senate stripped out those earmarks.
The negotiating committee agreed to let the House list specific amounts of money for specific projects while allowing the Department of Transportation to split up the remainder for designated projects as it sees fit.
The House-approved version of the budget also would have tied additional funding for the University of New Mexico Athletics Department to the reinstatement of four intercollegiate sports that school’s regents have voted to eliminate: men’s soccer, beach volleyball and men’s and women’s skiing.
The committee dropped the additional funding for the sports programs and the requirement that the four teams be reinstated. Instead, it put into the budget that the university “may” reinstate those sports, something UNM could do anyway.
The rest of the changes agreed to by the committee generated little discussion. These included $200,000 for legislative staff and $200,000 to set up the state division of outdoor recreation that lawmakers have voted to establish.
But committee members disagreed on how to divide a total of $700,000 to hire additional staff for the Legislature.
The House version of the budget included $880,000 to hire more aides. House Democrats put forward the idea as a way of expanding constituent services, suggesting legislators also get money to open field offices in different parts of the state.
Senators have been cool to the idea. They raised concerns that these staff might end up working more as political operatives than as liaisons to constituents. The Senate stripped out the money altogether in its version of the budget.
Lundstrom suggested the House and Senate divide the money evenly — $350,000 each. But another one of the committee’s members, Sen. Steve Neville, raised concerns that Republicans might not get a proportional share of staff. He proposed the money go towards hiring two aides for the majority and one aide for the minority in each chamber, ensuring the resources are shared somewhat proportionally.
The committee adjourned after about 20 minutes. But soon after, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, rushed into Lundstrom’s office, pulling a reporter out of the way and closing the door. He emerged a short time later and Lundstrom called the committee to reconvene.
Lundstrom said her party’s leadership in the House could not agree to the committee’s decision on splitting up staff. She then she asked the committee to agree that the use of the House’s funds would be left to the discretion of House leadership — Republican and Democrat — with expenses to be approved by the legislative officials.
“The staff is definitely needed,” said Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, who sat on the negotiating committee. “It’s just an issue of fairness.”
Neville, R-Farmington, pointed out the positions would be exempt, meaning the employees would not be subject to the state’s recruiting process. “The concept of patronage could enter in here,” he said. “That’s a concern.”
Powdrell-Culbert and Neville did not sign on to the committee’s compromise, though Neville urged senators to vote for it rather than undermine the state’s entire budget.
The Senate ended up approving the compromise by a voice vote and the changes were pending before the House late Friday night.
Meanwhile, the House voted against accepting the Senate’s proposed changes to state tax laws, HB 6.
The bill would charge gross receipts taxes on internet sales and increase taxes on e-cigarettes as well as motor vehicle excise fees.
But when the House approved the bill, it also included increases in the personal income tax and vehicle registration fees, which House Democrats argued are key to shoring up the state’s finances for future years if the oil market tanks.
Members of the Senate and House will have to meet sometime Saturday morning to hash out an agreement if the tax bill is going to pass at all during the current session.