One-third of the way through the 2020 legislative session, the House and Senate have yet to hear the state’s main budget bill. But as that moment draws nearer, a flurry of negotiations over how to spend more than $7 billion are heating up in committee meetings and behind closed doors.
Key talks involve bridging the gaps between the executive and legislative branches’ competing spending plans on education. A series of interviews on Thursday showed some of those discrepancies are being resolved, while others … well, not yet.
“The House dubbed investments in education — not just K through 12, but cradle to career — as a moonshot,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told The New Mexican in an interview Thursday. “Well, they need to demonstrate that they’re serious about that moonshot. I believe that they will. But I think it’s early.”
While Lujan Grisham didn’t elaborate on specific budget items, a key House lawmaker did. Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, chair of the House Appropriations and Finance committee, said one area of likely common ground is funding for the state’s new Early Childhood Education and Care Department.
“We’ve come together much closer on that,” the Gallup Democrat said. “You’ll see that when we roll out the budget on Monday.”
There had been a significant disparity between the governor’s recommendation for the department’s budget ($440.5 million) and the Legislative Finance Committee’s ($390 million). And Lundstrom herself had voiced concern over the governor’s plan just two weeks ago.
“On early childhood, I think there’s going to be compromise,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
Another area of apparent agreement is higher education funding. Lundstrom said her committee will adopt the governor’s recommendation on “instruction and general” funding, which is the main appropriation colleges and universities use for their operations.
The House committee plans to finalize an updated version of House Bill 2, the General Appropriations Act sponsored by Lundstrom, on Saturday and file it on Monday. Once the committee approves the legislation, it will go to the House floor and then to the Senate.
One place where legislators and the governor still don’t see eye to eye is Lujan Grisham’s proposed Opportunity Scholarship, which Lundstrom said may not be approved.
“I think it’s an idea a little before it’s time and probably needs some more work in the interim,” she said. “I would imagine it would come back next summer if it doesn’t make it through the process.”
The reason, she said, was that lawmakers believe the scholarship —which would provide free college tuition for all New Mexicans — would be “disproportionately harder for poorer kids to get.”
“People feel like it needs to be needs-based,” Lundstrom said.
Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen also wasn’t sure if the proposal will be approved.
“I think there are still moving pieces,” said Papen, D-Las Cruces. “People are trying to figure out what this is going to do to the colleges. Can they really do this? Is this money really going to the most disadvantaged?”
And Smith, D-Deming, said legislators and the governor could reach a compromise, but some concerns remain for Senate Democrats.
“The exchange I’ve had, it’s not falling on party lines,” said Smith, whose committee will have a crucial role in shaping the budget. “There’s pushback from both Republicans and Democrats. At least that’s what they’ve communicated to me.”
The initiative would require $35 million in recurring funds to pay for students’ tuition and fees not already covered by the lottery scholarship and federal Pell grants.
Colleges have said the scholarship could help wealthy students more than poor ones given that it doesn’t specifically target low-income people. They’ve also said lower-income students may have trouble getting help to cover living expenses such as books, transportation, housing and food.
The House Appropriation and Finance Committee has yet to settle on its proposal on pay increases for teachers and state employees.
Lundstrom said she was aiming to include a 3 percent raise for state employees in House Bill 2, the same level Lujan Grisham recommended in her spending plan.
“It’s just tragic — some of those salary levels are way too low,” Lundstrom said.
She added the committee was unlikely to adopt a proposal by House Speaker Brian Egolf to increase teachers’ salaries by 10 percent, especially since that number is so much higher than the proposed state employee hike.
“It would be disingenuous to have one at 10 [percent] and all the rest of state employees at 3 [percent],” she said. “Teachers are hard to fill and I understand why he’d like to do that, but we’re just not going to do that high.”
The governor is proposing a 4 percent pay increase for all teachers and education personnel, while the Legislative Finance Committee has called for 3 percent.
Of course, these different areas of the budget can still be modified multiple times on their long path to the governor’s desk. Lujan Grisham said she is in constant talks with lawmakers during that journey, and willing to find consensus.
“I’m always willing to compromise,” she said. “And I meet with them all the time.
“I am enthusiastically optimistic about where we’re end up,” she added. “And let’s see if I’m right.”