- Associated Press - Thursday, February 6, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - State spending on public education and government programs would increase by 4.8 percent next year under a proposed budget heading to the New Mexico House with strong opposition from Republicans.

The Appropriations and Finance Committee split along party lines Thursday in approving the $6.2 billion budget on a 10-7 vote.

Republicans opposed the measure, saying it shortchanged GOP Gov. Susana Martinez’s education initiatives and didn’t leave much revenue available to offset possible economic development tax cuts.

“I don’t see this budget as fiscally responsible,” said Rep. Paul Bandy, an Aztec Republican.

But Democrats vigorously disagreed.

“We worked hard to compromise,” said Rep. Christine Trujillo, an Albuquerque Democrat. “I think we came up with a very, very good budget.”

The measure would increase spending by about $280 million in the fiscal year starting in July for programs ranging from courts and prisons to health care for the needy.

The committee debate foreshadows a likely partisan split over the budget in the House, where Democrats hold a narrow majority but are missing two members because of health problems. Democrats will need to unify their ranks to muster the votes needed to approve the spending plan and send it to the Senate. It’s possible a House vote could happen as soon as Friday.

Spending proposals for education and compensation for public employees could end up as two of the main areas of disagreement between Democrats and the Republican governor.

The largest share of the budget goes to public schools, about $2.7 billion. That’s a $150 million or 5.8 percent increase.

However, the governor and Republicans object that the vast majority of the money flows to the state’s 89 school districts through a formula that’s meant to help equalize educational opportunities across the state. School districts largely control how the money will be spent.

Martinez wants to allocate more money outside of the formula for programs that she maintains will improve schools and student performance. Taking that approach gives her administration greater control over what schools receive the aid.

The administration proposed $124 million for the Public Education Department and targeted education initiatives. The committee provided nearly $92 million, which is substantially more than the House Education Committee had recommended.

One of the big differences is for a merit pay proposal. Martinez sought nearly $12 million for stipends to high-performing teachers and principals. The committee didn’t fund the proposal, but Democrats contend that school districts have the flexibility to reward their best teachers with compensation money flowing through the school funding formula.

Many of the differences between Democrats and Republicans involve relatively small amounts. Martinez asked for $1.5 million for online systems in schools for parents to access information about their children’s classroom work. The committee provided no money. However, Democrats said some schools already have the online systems and others can use operational money in the proposed budget if they want to establish what’s called a “parent portal.”

The committee budget provides nearly $111 million for public employee compensation, nearly $78 million above the governor’s recommendations. All government workers and educational employees would receive 3 percent average pay raises, with higher amounts for those in certain jobs such as judges, district attorneys and state police. The governor proposed no across-the-board salary increases in her budget recommendations, and instead suggested raises for hard-to-fill positions, including prison guards and social workers who handle child abuse cases.

Tax cuts are handled in separate legislation, and Martinez has proposed nearly $2.6 million for tax incentives to encourage investment in startup and technology companies.


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

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