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.

Budget discussions loom as session hits one-third mark

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.

Republicans caution against overspending as reserves hit all-time high

Rarely has the phrase “financially prudent” been so hard to define at the Roundhouse. 

Amid the backdrop of a flush revenue stream and looming legislative races in November, Republicans are hammering away at Democrats and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in the early days of the 2020 session — contending they are overspending in a state inextricably reliant on the unpredictable oil and gas industry. Yet Democrats say their spending plan is fiscally responsible, and key components of their argument are backed by the influential Legislative Finance Committee. 

An estimated 45 percent of general fund revenues are now dependent on oil and gas, and GOP members argue that when that contribution declines, the state will be hard-pressed to find funding for new budget increases in early childhood and higher education the governor has proposed this session. Lujan Grisham is proposing a $7.68 billion budget for fiscal year 2021, including a $74 million increase to the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, $200.3 million more on K-12 education, a 4 percent pay raise for teachers and $35 million for the Opportunity Scholarship program. For Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, and other Republicans in the Legislature, the governor’s proposed 8.5 percent spending increase from last year is “irresponsible.”

“When we say it’s irresponsible, those words are not hyperbole. It is a fact — it’s irresponsible.

Legislators look to craft budget, buoyed by oil and gas money

Despite the wide variety of topics lawmakers will delve into starting Tuesday, this 30-day legislative session is meant to prioritize one thing: the budget. It can be an intimidating monolith. And while its hundreds of line items representing multitudes of state agencies provide plenty of room for disagreement, there’s actually a fairly close connection between the budget recommendations recently released by the executive and legislative branches. The governor is calling for an 8.4 percent increase to $7.68 billion for the fiscal year 2021 budget, while the committee recommends a 6.5 percent increase to $7.54 billion. Either plan would give New Mexico its second straight year of major budget increases fueled by unprecedented oil production in the southeast corner of the state. 

Still, there will be debate, and it may not just be nibbling around the edges. Tension is likely to center on one key area where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislative Finance Committee haven’t seen eye to eye — an Opportunity Scholarship that would provide tuition-free college for New Mexico residents.

Raul Torrez

District attorney: ‘Budgetary technicality’ to blame for unspent funds

Next January marks the beginning of the New Mexico’s 30-day legislative session, which will largely focus on budget issues, including how much money state departments, local governments and courts will get. Given Albuquerque’s high crime rate, the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s office and its funding will likely be under scrutiny by legislators. A preview of that scrutiny came in the form of a letter in October from the head of the House committee in charge of the budget and the Speaker of the House, to 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez. 

The October letter asked Torrez to detail how he spent the more-than-$6-million in appropriations his office received almost two years ago. In a Legislative Finance hearing earlier this week, Torrez told lawmakers a misunderstanding in how to word the request for money resulted in about $1.7 million of a $2 million special appropriation inaccessible to his office. In an almost 50-page report, Torrez told the LFC that it wasn’t until August of this year that his office realized that a “budgetary technicality” regarding recurring funds left most of the special appropriation effectively unusable. 

“We reached out to our analyst and we were specifically told that the language was not necessary,” Torrez told the panel. 

During the 2018 legislative session, Torrez asked the Legislature to appropriate $4.1 million with an additional $2.5 million to help fund a pilot program called the Crime Strategies Unit (CSU) for better tracking and analysis.

Letters could foreshadow future debates over crime prevention, budgets

The months leading up to legislative sessions are often marked by state agencies presenting progress reports to lawmakers. Crime in the Albuquerque area has been a frequent subject to come up when talking about spending. But those conversations are usually devoted to the road ahead and not to picking apart past budgets. 

But in a letter sent last month, the state’s speaker of the House and a top financial leader in the House asked the Bernalillo County district attorney for an informal audit of millions of dollars appropriated to his office two years ago. In return, the district attorney offered a private meeting with a legislative panel to go over how money is being spent. The written exchanges hint at further budget scrutiny from lawmakers, and also a potential rift between some House and Senate Democrats. 

Progress report

On October 17, New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf and House Appropriations Chair and Legislative Finance Co-chair Patricia Lundstrom, both Democrats, co-authored a letter to 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez about an upcoming interim meeting with the Legislative Finance Committee.

Senate, House reach deal on $7 billion state budget

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.

Senate, House differ on details of hefty state budget

The New Mexico House of Representatives rejected the Senate’s proposed budget on Wednesday, raising objections related to teacher pay, road funding and the pension plan for public employees. The differences are not insurmountable, leaders in both chambers insisted, but they delayed final action on a whopping $7 billion spending plan. The Senate approved its version earlier in the day with a vote of 39 to 2. But the House voted overwhelmingly against that budget, leaving some questions over how to divvy up appropriations as the state increases spending by 11 percent over the current fiscal year, with big boosts in funding to schools, infrastructure and child services. “This isn’t war or anything,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Democrat from Gallup who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

House, Senate send identical education spending plans to the governor

The state Senate and House of Representatives on Wednesday approved identical plans for how New Mexico should spend a big boost in public education funding, sending the two measures to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Both Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 5 provide for an additional $450 million in public education spending next year, including $113 million aimed at providing support for at-risk students and an extra $38 million to increase teacher pay. While much of the content of the bills mirrored earlier versions debated last week, there was one difference: A one-time increase in annual base pay for teachers, tied to the level of their teaching license, will amount to $2,000 less than what was included in the previous bills. The original plan was to start those teachers at $42,000 (tier one license), $52,000 (tier two) and $62,000 (tier three), with subsequent raises so that over the next few years they would eventually start earning salaries closer to $46,000, $56,000 and $66,000. Instead, under the bills approved Wednesday, teachers would start off earning base pay of $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000, with no immediate raises following.