- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A $6 billion budget proposal was sent back to a House committee Wednesday for possible revisions to try to break a stalemate over education spending.

With the House still unable to finish work on a budget for financing state government, Senate leaders are starting to assemble their own budget proposal as the Legislature moves into the final week of its 30-day session.

The budget failed last week on a tie vote in the House, with one Democrat joining Republicans in opposing the measure because they contended it shortchanged educational initiatives of GOP Gov. Susana Martinez.

Democratic and Republican House members huddled in separate closed-door meetings Wednesday to review a possible compromise that would have shifted about $17 million within the budget package to finance educational initiatives under the control of the Martinez administration’s Public Education Department. Proposed spending throughout the budget would have been reduced slightly to free up the money.

House Speaker W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, said no spending deal has been reached.

“There have been a lot of good faith efforts to work that out. I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” he told House members.

He said it would be best to have the difficult policy differences hammered out by the budget committee rather than during debate on the House floor.

He later told reporters that Democrats couldn’t agree to the latest budget offer from House Republicans partly because it provided too much discretion to the governor to decide how to allocate money for her educational initiatives. He also said Democrats weren’t in agreement that an additional $17 million should be provided for the governor’s initiatives.

On a mostly party-line 34-33 vote, the House sent the budget back to the Appropriations and Finance Committee, which developed the initial spending plan. One Democrat sided with Republicans, who opposed the move and wanted the budget proposal brought up for debate.

Enrique Knell, a spokesman for the governor, said it “appears that extreme elements of the House Democratic caucus have rejected efforts to achieve a bipartisan compromise on the budget.”

Democrats hold a narrow 37-33 majority but two Democrats are absent this session because of health problems. One Republican was absent for Wednesday’s budget vote.

House GOP Leader Donald Bratton of Hobbs complained that the dispute was over how to spend about three-tenths of 1 percent of the budget.

“We haven’t done the job we were elected to do,” Bratton said.

Among the difficult issues in budget talks is whether to provide money for a merit pay proposal by the governor to provide stipends to high-performing teachers and principals. Many Democrats and educational unions object to merit pay that’s based on student achievement on standardized tests.

The committee’s initial budget provided money for school districts to provide an average 3 percent across-the-board pay raise for teachers and other educational workers, but no money specifically for the governor’s performance pay plan.

“We have negotiated and compromised in good faith on the state budget from day one with leaders from both parties and will continue to do so,” said Knell.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the panel will put together a budget because time is running out in the session.

“We are trying to find some common ground,” Smith said in an interview.

If a budget agreement isn’t reached before the 30-day session ends next Thursday, legislators will have to return to work in a special legislative session to approve a plan to finance government operations in the fiscal year that starts in July.


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

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