- Associated Press - Friday, February 7, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A $6.2 billion budget proposal failed in the House on a tie vote Friday as Republicans and Democrats clashed over education spending and school-improvement initiatives advocated by GOPGov. Susana Martinez.

Republicans were joined by one Democrat - Rep. Sandra Jeff of Crownpoint - in opposing the measure.

The 34-34 vote will force lawmakers to “go back to the negotiating table and see if there is a place we can meet,” House Speaker W. Ken Martinez, a Grants Democrat, told reporters.

Two Democrats are absent this session because of health problems, but Martinez said he didn’t expect an attempt to bring one of the members to the session to break the budget stalemate.

The bill remains alive and can be brought up later. The House isn’t scheduled to meet again until Monday.

“Obviously, everybody will take a deep breath, assess where we are at and see if there’s a way that we can close that gap. We’ll get out of here with a budget. We’ll be fine,” the speaker said.

Republicans objected that the measure didn’t pay for a number of the governor’s educational initiatives, including merit pay for teachers.

A GOP attempt to revamp the spending plan also failed on a tie vote. It would have shifted about $25 million to programs backed by the governor.

“It’s unfortunate that Democrats tried to ram through a partisan budget after only negotiating with labor unions and special interests and not the minority party,” said Enrique Knell, a spokesman for the governor. “That’s how Washington, D.C., operates, but it’s not how we should do things in New Mexico. The Democrats need to work in a bipartisan manner, and we’re willing to do that.”

The budget proposal provided for a 4.8 percent or $280 million increase in spending next year on schools, colleges and a host of government programs and services ranging from law enforcement and courts to health care and environmental regulation.

Schools account for the largest share of the state budget - about $2.7 billion in the plan advanced by Democrats- but the divisions between the two parties focused on a small portion of the spending.

The governor had sought a $55 million increase for programs administered through the Public Education Department, but the Democratic-backed budget provided $23 million.

Several of the governor’s initiatives received no money, including a proposal to help establish online systems in schools to allow parents to access information about their children’s classroom work. The governor wanted $1.5 million to expand the use of “parent portals.” A dropout-prevention program received no money, although Republicans said $500,000 was provided this year.

Money was provided for some of the governor’s education requests, including $6 million to help low-performing schools. Martinez requested $9 million. The budget provides $4 million for a new teacher evaluation system that’s heavily based on student performance on tests. The governor sought $6 million.

Democrats said a better approach to improving education is to allocate money through the state’s school finance formula, which is intended to equalize educational opportunities and take into account differences among New Mexico’s 89 school districts. That leaves it to local school boards to decide how to spend the state aid.

But Republicans complained that targeted improvement initiatives overseen by the Martinez administration are needed to boost the graduation rate and ensure students are ready for the workforce.

House GOP Leader Donald Bratton of Hobbs said there has been a “race to the bottom” in educational performance in the decades that Democrats have controlled the Legislature and spending on schools. The governor’s initiatives deserved a chance, Bratton said.

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


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