February 20, 2020

Senate passes version of budget, sends back to House

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The state Senate passed the main budget bill Wednesday by a wide margin after a lengthy debate in which Republicans warned of the dangers of New Mexico’s dependence on oil and gas, while a couple of progressive Democrats argued for spending more.

The chamber approved its amended version of House Bill 2 by a vote of 35-7 after a two-hour debate, calling for a $7.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2021 that would represent a 7.6 percent increase over the current year and leave reserves at 25 percent.

The House now needs to agree with the Senate’s changes before the General Appropriations Act can move to the governor’s desk. A House vote on the amended bill was expected Wednesday night.

NM Political Report update: The House concurred with the Senate changes early Thursday morning and the budget will be sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, again criticized the original House version of the legislation, which his committee amended significantly to lower spending — such as cutting a proposed 5 percent raise for teachers to 4 percent.

“It’s not a question of whether we would like to do it, it’s a question of having a balanced budget,” said Smith, D-Deming.

The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday cut one-time appropriations from the House bill by a total of $142.5 million. That included reducing roadwork spending to $180 million from $255 million.

Republican senators voiced concern during the floor debate about the state’s dependence on the volatile oil and gas industry and the possibility that revenue could fall amid a downturn in energy markets.

“We’ve got to continue to be very careful,” said Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo. “We don’t have a whole lot of wiggle room on this stuff.”

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, proposed an amendment that would have inserted language into the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, embedded in the budget bill, to help high-school dropouts with GED certificates get a college education.

Pirtle lamented that the chamber didn’t get a chance to debate Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s college tuition proposal because a separate bill focusing on that initiative hasn’t moved forward. Money for the program instead was included in HB 2. 

Senators initially voted in favor of Pirtle’s amendment. But in a strange move some 20 minutes later, a motion was made to reconsider it; on the second take, it was struck down.

Smith argued that Pirtle’s change was not necessary because the budget bill gives the Higher Education Department the flexibility to target different segments of the student population.

The Senate decided to fund Lujan Grisham’s proposal at $17 million, with only $12 million in recurring spending. The allocation was a big drop from the $35 million the governor originally had requested, though a step up from the House’s decision not to fund the scholarship program at all.

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, then proposed a second amendment that would have allocated an extra $23 million to pay raises so no state employee or public school worker would make less than $15 an hour. The amendment failed; senators said it would throw the budget out of balance and could force a special session.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, took issue with the budget crafting process in general and questioned why it was necessary to leave 25 percent in reserves after the House had approved the legislation with 23 percent in reserves.

“I think we have a situation where we’re planning the budget backwards,” Ortiz y Pino said. “Instead of starting with what we need, we started with what we want to save.”

The Albuquerque Democrat also charged that he and other senators who aren’t members of the Senate Finance Committee weren’t able to give input before the budget was drafted.

“This is more of an informational session than an action session,” he said.

Moderate Democrats countered that it wasn’t possible to satisfy all budget requests, even if they came from state agencies or the governor. 

“Not everyone gets what they want — it’s that way in the world,” said Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat. “You’re not always going to get what you want in life.”