Committees start talks on budget fix, with lots of debate to come

State workers would see a drop in their pay raises for fiscal year 2021 and spending for most agencies would be cut significantly under the draft budget overhaul lawmakers began debating Wednesday. Whittling a record $7.6 billion budget to $7.34 billion — and filling wide spending gaps with cash reserves, pandemic-related aid from the federal government and other measures — is no small task for the New Mexico Legislature as it convenes Thursday for a special session to address a steep decline in projected revenues. Members of the state House and Senate finance committees met Wednesday to review the plan, which would slash higher education spending by 6 percent — the biggest cut for any single agency — and reduce the 4 percent pay raises for state workers, approved earlier this year, to 1.5 percent for those who earn less than $40,000 a year and 0.5 percent for higher earners. Funding for the new Early Childhood Education and Care Department, set to take over all services for young children July 1, would be cut by $3.3 million; the spaceport would lose $600,000; and $17 million would be slashed from the Medicaid program. Lawmakers, however, hope to shift money from the Tobacco Settlement Permanent Fund to fill the Medicaid gap.

State budget takes center stage, advancing to full House

A House committee on Monday advanced a $7.6 billion budget plan for next fiscal year, giving Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham much of the education funding she had asked for yet choosing not to back her marquee free-tuition plan. The House Appropriations and Finance Committee approved House Bill 2 with an increase of $529 million, or 7.5 percent, from the current year’s budget. The bill passed by a vote of 11-5 along party lines, with Republicans decrying the spending level as too high. The bill is expected to be taken up by the full House later this week. 

The House panel found a middle ground between the fiscal year 2021 spending plan proposed by Lujan Grisham and that recommended by a key legislative panel. The governor had called for a $7.68 billion spending plan, while the the Legislative Finance Committee recommended $7.55 billion. 

“It’s been a very good working relationship,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, chairwoman of the committee, speaking of the Governor’s Office.

Spending plan to increase pay for New Mexico’s teachers

A key House budget panel met Saturday to review a spending plan that offers higher K-12 teacher pay raises and more money for early childhood services than suggested by the Legislative Finance Committee. The House Appropriations and Finance Committee reviewed a spending proposal that includes about $61 million more than recommended by the LFC, coming close to midway between Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s and the LFC’s competing budget plans, which featured a $132 million overall difference. A document provided by the Legislative Finance Committee on Saturday shows that House Bill 2 will include $35 million more for public education and $4.7 million more for higher education than the LFC budget. It does not include money for the governor’s Opportunity Scholarship, which would cover public university education for New Mexico residents. State Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said funding for the scholarship could still be offered in an amendment to House Bill 2 on Monday, when the committee plans to vote on the budget bill.

Addressing human trafficking, reproductive justice bills on tap

The 2020 legislative session kicked off with a traveling billboard driving around the Capitol building reminding citizens and lawmakers of the 2019 attempt to repeal New Mexico’s decades old abortion ban. But so far, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has not signaled that she wants the legislature to take another shot at trying to repeal the old ban during the 30-day session. There were, however, several other pre-filed bills and one issue that has not been filed yet as a bill that pertains to reproductive justice which Lujan Grisham put on her call for the session. Increasing penalties for human trafficking

No legislator has filed a bill on increased criminal penalties for human trafficking, but Lujan Grisham signaled she wants a bill on the issue when she announced her priorities ahead of the session. Governor’s Office Press Secretary Nora Meyers Sackett said a bill will be introduced soon.

Sweeping education reform heads to House floor

A sweeping K-12 education reform bill that would raise salaries for New Mexico teachers but could limit the growth of charter schools in the state’s urban areas is headed to the House floor. The House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted 11-3 to approve the measure, which would improve salaries for New Mexico’s 22,000 classroom teachers across the board over a period of years. “It’s about time we started paying our teachers like professionals,” said Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, one of the sponsors of House Bill 5. Currently, teachers in the state’s three-tiered licensure system earn a base salary of $36,000 (Tier 1), $44,000 (Tier 2) and $54,000 (Tier 3). The bill would increase those salaries next year to $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000, respectively.

Legislative roundup, Feb. 12, 2019

Days remaining in session: 33

Prison profits: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s inaugural committee says it will give a donation from the private prison company Geo Group to charity. The Florida-based firm runs several prisons in New Mexico and has contributed to politicians on both sides of the aisle. According to financial disclosures Lujan Grisham’s inaugural committee published last week, Geo Group donated $2,500 to the Democratic governor’s inaugural festivities. Democratic politicians have faced awkward questions about financial contributions from the private prison industry amid outrage over the federal government’s zero-tolerance policy toward undocumented migrants. Companies like Geo Group have stood to gain from the federal policy.

No budget deal yet between House, Senate

The Legislature’s two chambers are at odds over a proposed $6.3 billion state budget. Unlike recent years when financial problems prompted rounds of cuts, partisan fights and depleted reserves, the disagreements that emerged Tuesday came down to comparatively minor questions about funding roads. The Senate overwhelmingly approved a spending plan on Tuesday that provides bigger pay raises for state police than a version of the budget passed by the House of Representatives. The Senate version of the budget, approved 40-2 by members of that chamber, also provides millions of dollars in additional funding for the district attorney in Albuquerque and returns some of the money cut from school districts last year. But the Senate also scaled back the amount of money the House had approved for roads.

Lottery scholarship bill deadlocks in committee

The state lottery’s luck may have run out at the Legislature. A House committee on Wednesday tabled a bill that would end a requirement that the New Mexico Lottery turn over 30 percent of the gross revenue of ticket sales for the state’s college scholarship program. The lottery argues that scrapping the revenue requirement would allow it to boost prizes, in turn raising ticket sales and providing even more money for scholarships, which helped defray expenses for some 26,000 students last year. Critics contend the bill would amount to a blank check for the state lottery and mean less money for students. The 8-8 vote by the Appropriations and Finance Committee did not kill House Bill 147.

Legislator says he was shut out during budget process

A member of the state House of Representatives is asking for an investigation of a legislative committee, charging that several of its members met privately without him to craft part of the annual state budget and omitted his proposal to restore about $41 million cut from the reserves of school districts last year. Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, said the meeting left legislators like him out of part of the process of preparing the spending plan. In an unusual move, Townsend asked the Legislative Council Service to investigate why the meeting did not include him and many other members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. “I don’t believe it’s in any of our interest, whether it be a Democratic majority or a Republican majority, to have a process that prevents your constituents or my constituents from being represented,” he said on the House floor Thursday before heading to the council’s offices on the fourth floor to file what the representative described as a verbal complaint. Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, the Gallup Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said the panel did nothing improper or out of the ordinary.

House GOP unveil budget proposal which would divert money from Legislature’s retirement

State House Republicans unveiled a spending plan for the upcoming special legislative session that would transfer $12.5 million from the state Legislative Retirement Fund to the general fund to solve the New Mexico’s budget shortfall. Martinez announced the special session will begin Wednesday, May 24. GOP House leaders announced the plan publicly in a press release Tuesday, touting it as a solution to fix the state’s budget issues without raising taxes. “This plan covers New Mexico’s budget needs for the upcoming fiscal year and increases funding for cancer care as well as support for students working to obtain a college degree,” state Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, said in a statement. “I urge my colleagues in the Legislature to adopt these proposals so we can resolve this budget impasse fairly and for the benefit of all New Mexicans.”

But the ranking lawmaker in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee questioned whether the Legislature could legally transfer money already invested the retirement fund.