Crafting of state budget could go down to wire

On Monday morning, there was a sign on a key Senate panel’s door with underlined writing in all caps. “House Bill 2 will not be heard today,” it read. The General Appropriations Act, also known as the main budget bill for New Mexico state government, had been on the Senate Finance Committee’s agenda for Monday but would now have to continue awaiting action, as it has for nearly since two weeks since the House passed it. “We don’t have the amendments ready,” committee chair Sen. John Arthur Smith told The New Mexican. “It’s not an easy process when you have this many amendments.”

Indeed, the committee does have to sort through some 600 proposed amendments while it also figures out how to cut around $150 million from a House bill Smith says overshoots spending targets.

Budget push comes down to the final hours

If you started the clock at midnight Monday and counted down to the end of this year’s legislative session at noon Thursday, you’d come up with 84 hours. That’s how long legislators in the state Senate have to make adjustments to the state budget. “Putting out fires. That’s what it looks like,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. John Arthur Smith of what promises to be a frenetic three and a half days. Entering the final moments of the 30-day legislative session, the state budget encompassed in House Bill 2 remains in limbo.

Senate prepared for tough decisions while cutting down budget

The New Mexico House of Representatives may have passed the main budget bill, but the spending plan is unlikely to get to the governor’s desk without a slashing. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is more than irked at the version of the budget the other chamber sent over. Sen. John Arthur Smith is promising to “get real aggressive” in finding areas to cut and free up needed revenue. “I will admit that I’ve been more annoyed with this budget cycle and what was sent over to us,” said Smith, D-Deming, referring to House Bill 2. “Because of the reserve targets — they knew darn well what they were.”

When the House passed its $7.6 billion budget bill last week, it said the legislation called for stashing away 26 percent in reserves, which would be in line with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s spending plan at a time when the state is projecting sizable new revenues from oil and gas production.

Opportunity Scholarship clears Senate panel

A scholarship plan aimed at covering all college tuition and expense costs for New Mexicans cleared yet another hurdle when members of the Senate Education Committee voted 5-2 to send it to the Senate Finance Committee. But the bill may face deeper scrutiny once it gets there since a Legislative Finance Committee fiscal impact report says it may cost much more than the Higher Education Department estimates. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the program would cost about $35 million a year when she unveiled the proposal last year. Reacting to concerns expressed early in the session, the bill’s sponsors worked on a revamp to make it more palatable to lawmakers. Their alterations increased the cost to $45 million.

Governor makes final, futile pitch on early ed

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made her last pitch to a Senate committee Friday for additional funding for early childhood education. But she couldn’t get a vote. With her 3-year-old granddaughter in tow, the newly elected Democratic governor called for lawmakers to consider using a larger share of the state’s nearly $18 billion land grant permanent fund to pay for pre-kindergarten programs.

Lujan Grisham had backed a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide whether to take an additional percentage point from the fund for early childhood education, on top of the 5 percent the state currently uses each year for public schools and other institutions. When Democrats joined with Republicans on the Senate Rules Committee to block that idea, Lujan Grisham threw her support behind a measure that called for half a percent. Senate Bill 671 passed the chamber’s education committee.

Senate Finance Committee restores bill creating early ed department

Just days after the Senate Education Committee drastically pared down a bill creating a new early childhood education department — stripping much of its oversight of programs for young children — the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Michael Padilla, convinced another panel of lawmakers to reverse the changes. The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday unanimously approved an amendment undoing the earlier move, which would have torn the proposed new department in half. “We heard a rallying cry that people want full accountability and continuity across the early childhood education spectrum,” Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat, said Thursday after the Finance Committee’s vote. The new amendment of Senate Bill 22 makes it clear that the early childhood education department — which Padilla envisions as a one-stop shop of services for children from birth to age 5, including prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds — will maintain oversight of all such programs.

Currently, several state agencies provide programs for children and oversee services offered by private contractors. Among them are the Public Education Department, the Children, Youth and Families Department, the Human Services Department and the Department of Health.

Andy Lyman

Smith criticizes cap on property valuation increases

An influential state senator on Monday railed against a law that changed the way New Mexico taxes residential properties, saying the 2001 measure was supposed to help low-income people but instead has hurt them while providing a windfall to wealthier homeowners. Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, in remarks on the Senate floor, also said the law has robbed counties of needed tax revenue. Smith, D-Deming, called the fallout from the law the “unintended consequences of the do-good of the Legislature.” The senator made the remarks in response to a story in Sunday’s New Mexican, which examined the law’s history and effects. It was designed to protect longtime homeowners in gentrified neighborhoods like Santa Fe’s east side from being taxed out of their residences due to rising property values.

Senate committee caves to governor’s demand for more police pay, DA funds

A Senate committee bent Saturday to calls by Gov. Susana Martinez for more funding for state police pay and the District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, as well as calls from some fellow lawmakers to restore at least some of the funding cut from school districts last year. In announcing its version of the budget passed by the state House of Representatives late last month, the Senate Finance Committee seemed intent on maintaining the tenuous peace that has set in at the Roundhouse in the wake of the partisan clashes of the last few years. The budget would amount to about $6.3 billion and, according to the Senate Finance Committee, leave reserves around 10 percent. It would amount to about a 4 percent increase in spending over the current fiscal year. The House passed its version of the spending plan by a vote of 65-3 on Jan.

Amendment to tap endowment for early ed funding moves closer to ballot

Democratic state legislators who want to expand early childhood education by spending a portion of New Mexico’s $16 billion land grant endowment won another round Friday, bringing their proposal to a pivotal point. The Senate Education Committee voted 5-3 on party lines to advance the proposed constitutional amendment, formally called House Joint Resolution 1. Republicans on the committee opposed the measure, saying spending more of the endowment now would hurt future generations. One Republican lawmaker also pointed to the market’s recent volatility and said the fund has lost hundreds of millions of dollars during the decline. Under the proposed amendment, another 1 percent would be taken from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund.

Southwest water bill would shift funding from Gila River diversion

By a tight vote Tuesday morning, the Senate Conservation Committee passed a water bill—one that represents the latest attempt to control spending on a controversial diversion on the Gila River. Introduced by Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, Senate Bill 72, would channel federal money earmarked for the diversion toward other water projects in southwestern New Mexico. It would appropriate $50 million toward fully implementing a regional water project in Grant County, other shovel-ready water projects in the area, a groundwater study of the Mimbres Basin aquifer and water planning for the City of Deming. Morales told NM Political Report that he sees passage of the bill as a way to move tens of millions of dollars in federal money in a “responsible way.”

The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) voted in 2014 to build the diversion, ten years after Congress authorized the state to trade 14,000 acre feet of water with a downstream user in Arizona. Already, New Mexico has spent more than $13 million of its federal subsidy on studies, engineering plans, and attorneys fees, although the state and the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity still lack a firm plan or location for the diversion.