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Local lawmakers vote against budget

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Citing unease with proposed hikes in spending, members of Chaves County’s state legislative delegation voted against a proposed state budget bill Wednesday when it was taken up by the New Mexico House of Representatives.

The General Appropriations Act, also known as House Bill 2 (HB 2), was approved by the Democratic-controlled House on a 46-24 vote. Local state Reps. James Townsend, R-Artesia and Roswell state Reps. Phelps Anderson, Candy Spence Ezzell and Greg Nibert — all Republicans — were among the House members who voted against the bill’s passage.

A $7.6 billion state budget, HB 2 increases spending for Fiscal Year 2021 by 7.5% or $529 million over the current fiscal year, state Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, and chair of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee said when the bill was introduced.

The bill was more than the 6.5% growth in spending proposed by the Legislative Finance director but more than the 8.5% in the governor’s executive budget proposal.

Anderson, who sits on the House Appropriations and Finance Committee said Monday he was not present when HB 2 passed his committee, but he would have voted against it.

“We have simply grown state revenues faster than our revenues can support,” he said

The bill includes, among other things, a 3% raise for state employees, a 4% raise for public school employees and 5% increases for public school teachers, Lundstrom said.

A sheet on increases in the budget states the bill also contains a 7.4% increase in public school support and an 8.4% boost to the state Health Department among others.

Townsend though thinks budget increases should have been more targeted.

“I think the department increases straight across the board were too much,” he said.

The state is in the midst of a budget surplus that includes $797 million in “new money,” or revenue anticipated for the coming fiscal year over money spent in the current fiscal year. The surplus is largely attributed to a production boom in oil in southeastern New Mexico.

HB 2 increases recurring state reserves to 26%, money that can be used to weather times when state finances are tight in a state dependent on the volatile oil and gas market.

Ezzell said she thinks the budget should have placed more money in reserves for when there is a downturn in the oil and gas boom.

“I want our reserves to be good because once that extractive industry product is gone, it is gone,” she said.

House Republicans proposed an alternative budget that would have grown spending for Fiscal Year 2021 by 4% and recurring reserves at 32%. It also would have included a $200 rebate for each New Mexico resident and would have included a pilot program to incentivize school districts where at-risk students perform well academically. The budget was supported but Anderson, Ezzell, Nibert and Townsend, but was defeated on a 46-24 vote. 

Ezzell and other Republicans voiced concern that rises in spending could eventually force the lawmakers to make significant cuts to state agencies and sweep money back from school districts, as they were forced to do several times in recent years.

“I don’t want to go down that road again,” Ezzell said.

Supporters of the budget though said it was designed with bipartisan input from lawmakers and was part of a months-long process.

“It is very nuanced, it is very detailed and by no means do I believe that this is all reckless spending or that we are just attempting to somehow break the bank,” state Rep. Javier Martinez, R-Albuquerque, said.

Townsend said he agrees more money should have been put in reserves than 26% but more money should have also been invested in one-time appropriations such as road repairs and shoring up the state’s public employee retirement funds.

HB 2 did include an appropriation of $250 million to the New Mexico Department of Transportation for road projects. But Townsend said he does not think that is enough.

“This surplus we had should have been spent on capital improvements, roads, infrastructure, that were shovel-ready and were putting people on the ground working,” he said.

Anderson said he was also uncomfortable that programs such as the formation of an Early Childhood Education Trust Fund as outlined in Senate Bill 3 (SB 3). The budget appropriates $300 million for the trust.

However, Anderson said Monday before SB 3 passed the Senate that he is worried that programs that have not been signed into law are pre-funded.

He said he wants to deal with the individual bills as they come before committees and not have them funded before they are taken up.

SB 3 passed the Senate Tuesday.

Jennifer Abbots, a spokesperson for House Democrats, said the budget process allows for the budget to be changed as pending legislation is passed.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.