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State budget passes House with bipartisan support

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New Mexico state lawmakers trickle into the Statehouse on Tuesday, Jan. 19 in Santa Fe on the first day of a 60-day legislative session. (AP File Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Most local representatives vote in favor of the $7.3 billion House bill

With overwhelming bipartisan support on Wednesday, a $7.3 billion state budget coasted through the New Mexico House of Representatives.

House Bill 2 (HB 2) sets state spending levels for the fiscal year which begins July 1, and passed on a vote of 60-10. Local state Reps. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell; Phelps Anderson, DTS-Roswell; and House Minority Floor Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, all supported passage. Fellow state Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, opposed the measure.

It now heads to the New Mexico Senate for consideration.

The budget represents a $332 million, or 4.6% increase over the current budget, much of which goes toward funding items that were temporarily covered by federal stimulus dollars, state Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said when introducing HB 2 to the full House for three hours of discussion.

“Our constitutional duty is to prepare a state budget, and I am incredibly proud of the work by HAFC members and staff, who’ve come together during one of the most trying times in our state’s history to get this budget done,” Lundstrom said in a press release circulated after the vote.

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Anderson, who represents northeastern Chaves County as well as parts of Lea and Roosevelt counties in House District 66, said the budget is urgently needed as the state seeks to emerge from the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Today is the day when House Bill 2 needs action,” Anderson said.

He added that the state is struggling to regain its footing, while New Mexico students having trouble with virtual learning are falling behind.

“This is not the way forward for New Mexico and I believe House Bill 2 provides a critical step forward to a fully functioning state government which is going to be part of turning this economy around and opening our schools,” Anderson said.

Much of the budget, or $3.39 billion, is directed toward public education, representing a 5.5% spike over the previous year. A summary of the budget from the Legislative Finance Committee said those items include $110 million of extended learning programs, $120 million for K-5 Plus programs for an extra 25 days of schooling for at-risk elementary school students, and $20 million for community schools.

Federal aid passed in December will also send school districts in New Mexico an additional $439 million to address possible school enrollment losses.

Ezzell, who like Anderson sits on the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said part of the reason for public education taking up so much of the budget is because of the requirement that the state meet its obligation to provide sufficient funding to eduction as mandated under the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico decision.

She also said the Appropriations Committee prioritized making funding available in order for New Mexico schools to reopen.

“The concern from most of the people who serve on that committee is that it is time they get back in school, our kids get back in school and our teachers start teaching in person again,” she said.

Ezzell added that she is glad the state Department of Transportation received $300 million in funding for local and state roads throughout New Mexico.

The bill though was not perfect for local lawmakers. Ezzell said she would have liked to see the state’s reserve levels higher. The budget places reserves, which help the state endure financial volatility, at 24% of expenditures.

Nibert, the lone member of the area House delegation to oppose the budget, said he was dismayed by the bill’s size.

“I just really am concerned that we continue to grow government,” he said after the vote was cast.

A hike in the budget for the New Mexico Environment is something Nibert said was contained in HB 2 that he opposed. He added he is worried that and other initiatives taken by the Legislature this session will send a negative message to the oil and gas industry, which the state relies on for a large share of its budget and is a crucial element of southeast New Mexico’s economy.

“I just don’t like increasing the role of government there and doing things there that are going to cause problems for our friends and neighbors,” Nibert said.

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

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