New Mexico budget negotiations stumble over road funding

Feb 14, 2018

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A $6.3 billion spending plan for New Mexico state government was thrown into limbo Tuesday as the House of Representatives rejected Senate amendments that would reduce money for road construction and maintenance. The New Mexico state Senate approved a $6.3 billion spending plan Tuesday that increases criminal justice spending and boosts pay for public school teachers, state government workers and elected officials. Hours later, House lawmakers refused to concur with an assortment of Senate amendments based largely on differences over road funding. Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, chairwoman of the lead House budget writing committee, said the road and highway funds are a crucial engine of economic development, and that the Senate plan would slash those allocations from $60 million to $34 million. If the Senate stands by its amendments, negotiations on a compromise would head to a conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers. "When we get into the conference committee, everything that is in the bill and every change that is in the bill is open for discussion," said Republican Rep. Larry Larranaga, one of three likely House negotiators. The Democrat-led Legislature has until noon Thursday to send a budget bill to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. Senate amendments as approved would provide greater pay increases to police, prison guards and Albuquerque-based prosecutors as well as more money for state universities and colleges. In all, the Senate-approved budget would increase general fund spending by $259 million — or about 4 percent — for the fiscal year starting July 1. A rebound in the oil and natural gas sectors is providing a windfall to the state after two years of austere budgeting. Leading lawmakers and the governor have insisted on maintaining state reserves at 10 percent of annual spending obligations — complicating efforts to fulfill competing wish lists. The House and Senate have both endorsed increased spending on early childhood education programs, Medicaid, business subsidies, tourism promotion and a spacecraft launch facility. Martinez has the authority to veto any provision of the final bill and has stressed the need shore up spending on law enforcement — especially for the district attorney's office overseeing Albuquerque. That office would receive a 16.5 percent operating budget increase, with additional funding to prosecute violent crimes against children, create a crime strategies unit and clear a backlog of court cases. Senate budget amendments also boosted pay by 8.5 percent for state police, prison guards and parole officers. FBI statistics show that reports of violent crime in Albuquerque jumped around 16 percent in 2016, though its violent crime rate is not among the highest in the nation when it comes to cities of similar size and demographics. "We didn't give them everything they wanted, but they were included in the process — especially on the compensation," Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith, the Senate's lead budget negotiator, said of the governor's office. Smith and Senate colleagues warned that state finances are still vulnerable to fluctuations in oil markets, a recent surge in tax appeals and a pending lawsuit that calls for sweeping changes to state funding for public education. The Legislature has endorsed a 2.3 percent increase on public school funding to $2.7 billion. School districts in New Mexico depend on the state for the majority of their funding. Teacher pay would increase by an average of 2.5 percent under the Senate plan, with some discretion left to individual school districts on assigning raises. "Finally we have some room to do those raises, because those are the people who are taking care of our kids in school," said Democratic Sen. George Munoz, of Gallup, whose wife is a public school principal. The House and Senate have both approved for a 10 percent pay raise for statewide elected officials beginning next year including the governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Those salaries have not increased since 2002. Base pay for state workers would increase by 2 percent.