- Associated Press - Friday, February 20, 2015

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A $6.2 billion budget bill for New Mexico that forms the blueprint for future spending discussions has cleared its first committee vote with near unanimous support.

The amount of total general fund spending is nearly the same as that outlined by Gov. Susana Martinez and the Legislative Finance Committee before the start of this year’s legislative session.

Martinez and lawmakers have highlighted education as a priority in a state with some of the lowest performing schools in the nation.

Both laid out plans in January based on revenue projections available then to spend an additional roughly $70 million on education, but with less new money available due to falling oil prices, the bill calls for a $37 million bump for education initiatives.

The figure represents 44 percent of the more than $80 million in new money available to spend.

The budget bill for the fiscal year starting July 1 includes pay hikes for new teachers and state police officers.

While most department budgets remain largely flat, the plan boosts spending for Children, Youth and Families Department, tourism, and criminal defense.

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted 15-1 Friday to move the bill to the full House, which could take it up as early as Monday.

Committee Chairman Rep. Larry Larranaga, R-Albuquerque, called the bill a “compromise budget.”

“There’s a little bit of something that we (all) don’t like in this budget,” he said.

Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said she could not in “good conscience” support the bill, singling out the education component as not respecting local control.

“We have deferred too much of the decision making to the PED (Public Education Department)” on how money is appropriated to schools, she said.

Some of her colleagues on the panel said they wanted to get the bill moving to a full debate on the House floor.

Some highlights:

EDUCATION

Public schools will be allocated more than $2.7 billion from the general fund. More than $43 million would help pay for the state’s prekindergarten program and expansion of the school year for kindergarten through third-grade students as part of an effort to close the achievement gap in literacy and math. Another $12.2 million would go toward other initiatives, including raising the starting salary for new teachers by $2,000.

CHILD WELFARE AND SAFETY

Children, Youth and Families Department will see an $8 million or 3.5 percent increase in funding for early childhood programs and to help the agency deal with an increasing caseload.

CRIMINAL DEFENSE

Public defender’s offices will get a bump of $3.7 million, an 8.3 percent increase over current year spending. The figure would allow the department to hire 30 support staff statewide, help pay for court ordered attorney services assigned to represent people other than indigents.

PUBLIC SAFETY

The Department of Public Safety will get $7 million more - a 6.4 percent increase - over last year for a total of $116.1 million. More than $3 million of the new money would go toward an average 5 percent pay increases for state police officers.

TOURISM

Tourism spending gets a $1.3 million boost or a 12.2 percent increase over current levels for a total $13.8 million in spending to continue successful efforts to market the state.

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