- Associated Press - Sunday, February 16, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A Senate panel approved a $6.2 billion spending package on Sunday with more money for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s educational initiatives in hopes of breaking a budget stalemate.

The measure cleared the Finance Committee unanimously and goes to the Senate for consideration.

A vote is expected late Monday or Tuesday, said committee chairman Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat.

The prospects remained uncertain whether the Senate, House and the governor would agree on a budget before Legislature adjourns on Thursday.

“We’ve been trying to get something that all of us can live with. That’s the whole idea of compromise,” said Sen. Steven Neville, an Aztec Republican who serves on the committee.

A budget measure failed in the House earlier this month as one Democrat joined with Republicans in blocking the measure. Republicans said the plan shortchanged the governor’s school-improvement initiatives.

With the House stalled on a budget, the Senate committee developed its own blueprint for financing public schools, colleges and general government programs ranging from courts to health care.

The budget provides for a $293 million or 5 percent increase in spending in the fiscal year starting in July.

The Martinez administration was reviewing the budget but expressed concerns with the size of the spending increase and that the state’s cash reserves were too low.

“There is, of course, a long way left to go in the process,” said Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell.

The panel added $17.5 million for Martinez administration school programs above what had been in the stalled House budget. Included was nearly $7.3 million for initiatives to help recruit, retain and train educators. About $2.9 million was provided for programs to prevent students from dropping out of high school and to prepare them for careers and college.

Neville said the goal was to give the Public Education Department flexibility to work with school districts on initiatives to improve educational performance.

“It’s a decent budget,” said Sen. William Burt, an Alamogordo Republican.

The panel freed up the $17 million by trimming spending in all government programs by 0.275 percent.

The approach taken by the Senate committee was similar to a proposal that fizzled in the House because of opposition from Democrats. House Republicans had offered what they described as a compromise - funneling about $17 million for the governor’s initiatives - but House Democrats objected.

The fight over the budget this session has been in how to allocate a relatively small amount of money.

The budget provides $2.7 billion for schools, the department and other educational programs.

Educational groups and unions favor distributing state aid through a funding formula that leaves most spending decisions to local districts.

But Martinez asked the Democratic-controlled Legislature for a $55 million increase for programs that would be administered by the department. The initiatives ranged from merit pay for teachers to online systems in schools that would allow parents to get information about their children’s classroom work.

The Senate panel provided a $38 million increase in programs outside of the state’s school-funding formula.

“It may not be the full amount the executive was looking for, but it definitely does address the issues that they’ve had some concern over,” said Democratic Sen. Pete Campos of Las Vegas.

He expressed confidence that the budget would pass the Senate. It would then go to the House.

Other provisions of the committee’s budget:

-3 percent across-the-board pay increases for government workers and educators, with larger raises for state police and workers in certain hard-to-fill jobs such as prison guards.

-$833 million for the state’s network of colleges and universities. That provides for a 4.6 percent increase.


Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP



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