March 18, 2021

Senate sends amended $7.4 billion budget proposal to House

A $7.4 billion budget that would increase state government spending by 4.8 percent in the upcoming fiscal year cleared the New Mexico Senate along a mostly party-line vote Wednesday after an hourslong debate riddled with political potshots and last-minute amendments.

“Not everybody’s going to like what’s in the budget,” said Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat who is the Senate Finance Committee chairman. “Not everybody can get everything they want, but we can try.”

The proposed budget calls for $3.35 billion in public education spending, a 5.8 percent increase; $300 million for road projects around the state; $200 million in pandemic recovery grants for businesses; and $34 million to help shore up the pension fund for the state’s educators. The proposal also includes about $64 million for a 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for all state government, public school and higher education employees.

The spending plan passed on a 29-13 vote. Two Republicans, Sen. Steve Neville of Farmington and Sen. Pat Woods of Broadview, joined with Democrats in voting to support an amended version of House Bill 2, known as the General Appropriation Act of 2021.

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, called the spending plan “bloated.”

Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo, cautioned against an increase in spending amid the ongoing economic uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ll remind this body that just a year or so ago, we built a budget about the same amount and then we had to have a special session … to shore up the budget,” he said. “I think we spent about half the reserves, about $800 million, and y’all correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s a lot of money. Currently, our reserves at this level are $1.76 billion. If we have another downturn like that, that’s going to be a little tough.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle introduced a string of amendments.

Republicans’ amendments ranged from prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortions to reducing the governor’s contingency fund allocation from $96,000 to $72,000.

“Maybe it gets spent the right way this time,” Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said, referring to revelations that a staffer in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office purchased alcohol and other pricey grocery items for the governor’s mansion.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the 1st Congressional District seat, proposed two amendments. One proposed doubling the cost-of-living adjustment for state workers to 3 percent; the other proposed raising the wages of any state government employee who makes less than $15 an hour to at least $15.

“There’s a difference between building policy to work for working people and simply making a political point,” Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said after Sedillo Lopez proposed giving state workers a bigger raise. “The budget before you does real substantial good for working people.”

Candelaria later tweeted, “The [Sedillo Lopez] for Congress portion of the debate on HB2 has ended. Sad when the struggles of working people is co-opted for a political talking point on the campaign trail.”

Consideration of the proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 immediately got off to a tense start when Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, asked for the 222-page bill to be read aloud in its entirety.

Brandt said he didn’t find the budget online when he went to read it Tuesday and that he “finally” got the chance to read it Tuesday night.

“It’s actually very boring reading, and maybe I’m one of the only people that read it, but I do,” he said. “But the late hour we got out of here last night and with the morning I had to get in here for committee, I haven’t had even an hour to read the budget, let alone the three or four hours that it takes me.”

His request triggered a snappy exchange.

“If the good senator wants the bill read, then I would ask by unanimous consent … that him and the reader go read that in the corner,” Muñoz said.

That prompted Candelaria, also a member of the Senate Finance Committee, to propose a substitute motion to require Brandt to read the bill.

“Let’s start,” Brandt shot back. “I read really nice and slow, too.”

The Senate put the budget bill on hold to give Brandt time to review the document.