House panel unanimously approves $7.4 billion budget plan

Dan Boyd, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
·4 min read

Feb. 22—SANTA FE — Suddenly swimming in cash, members of a key House panel on Monday signed off on a $7.4 billion spending plan that would provide state funds to extend the school year by at least 10 days and give modest pay raises to teachers and other state workers.

In all, the budget plan for the fiscal year that starts in July would boost state spending for the coming fiscal year by $332 million — or 4.6% — over this year's levels, which had to be pared back due to pandemic-related revenue declines.

But the state's revenue outlook has brightened in recent months, due largely to an increase in oil prices and production, giving lawmakers a hefty budget surplus despite concerns of future revenue uncertainty.

Given that backdrop, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted unanimously on Monday to approve the pumped-up spending plan, which now advances to the full House for consideration.

"In this pandemic, it is not the time to attack state government spending," said Rep. Phelps Anderson, DTS-Roswell.

Under the budget plan advanced Monday, lawmakers would use about $1 billion of the projected $2.7 billion in state cash reserves for one-time spending.

That includes $300 million for road repair and construction around New Mexico and, in separate bills, more than $400 million in pandemic relief in the form of cash rebates for low-income workers, small business grants and other financial aid programs.

In addition, a separate bill being crafted in the Senate would authorize $30 million for broadband improvements and $325 million to replenish the state's nearly-depleted unemployment fund, legislative staffers said.

"I think this is a great budget despite the challenges and circumstances we face," said Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque.

In fact, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to enrollment declines in many New Mexico school districts, as many students and families have struggled under the remote learning format.

School officials and legislators alike have also expressed concern about a learning loss, or decrease in academic proficiency, during the pandemic.

In an attempt to address those issues and a 2017 ruling that New Mexico was not meeting its constitutional requirement to provide at-risk students with an adequate education, public schools would get nearly $3.4 billion —or roughly 46% of total state spending — under the budget plan.

Specifically, the bill would provide $110 million for extended learning, with that funding paying for 10 additional instructional days for all K-12 students.

Elementary schools with high-poverty student populations would get funding to expand the school year by 25 days, though districts would have the flexibility to schedule those days — either during summer vacation or during the traditional school year.

Meanwhile, the budget plan would authorize spending $64 million to provide 1.5% pay raises — or cost-of-living adjustments — for state employees, teachers and higher education workers.

A budget recommendation released last month by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham did not call for across-the-board pay increases.

However, Dan Secrist, president of Communications Workers of America Local 7076, which represents about 4,000 public employees in New Mexico, said legislators should be doing even more for state employees — many of whom are front-line, essential workers. He noted that the state is expected to receive billions in federal pandemic aid.

Most state employees, he said, were in line to receive a 4% or 5% raise last year, but it was pulled back to just 1% — or less — in a round of budget-cutting last summer. Employees making over $50,000 didn't get a raise of any kind.

"We feel like there's no reason — there's no excuse — for them to not be restoring our rescinded raise," Secrist said.

The budget bill, House Bill 2, is expected to be voted on by the full House as soon as Wednesday. If approved, it would then advance to the Senate, where changes could be made to the legislation.

Both chambers would have to sign off on the same version of the bill in order to send it to Lujan Grisham for final approval.

Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Dan McKay contributed to this report.