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NM Senate passes budget

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A fence is seen surrounding the State Capitol in Santa Fe on Feb. 24. The New Mexico Senate voted 29-13 to pass a state budget for the coming fiscal year that begins July 1. Local senators though, such as state Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo, opposed it, calling the bill “unsustainable.” (Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican via AP)

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All Chaves County senators vote against the measure

After three hours of discussion and the defeat of multiple proposed amendments, the New Mexico Senate Wednesday approved a state budget over the objection of local senators.

House Bill 2 will fund the state government in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. It passed the Senate on a mostly party-line vote of 29-13.

Republican state Sens. Steve Neville of Aztec and Pat Woods of Broadview joined with all of the chamber’s Democratic members in voting for the measure. All of the remaining Republicans voted against it, including area state Sens. Bill Burt of Alamogordo, Stuart Ingle of Portales, Gay Kernan of Hobbs and Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell.

The $7.4 billion spending package made its way through the chamber days before the Legislature adjourns Saturday. In all, it represents an increase of $344 million over the current budget.

State Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, sponsor of HB 2 and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, called the spending bill “the most important investment in New Mexico.”

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“It invests in our teachers, our economy, and our education system and our environment,” Munoz said. “Mr. president, when the work of the Senate Finance Committee in this session is done the results will be this: while meeting critical needs of the state government in House Bill 2, we managed important investments in the state’s future while continuing to address lingering impacts of the pandemic and increasing our reserves.”

A summary of items in the budget includes an increase of $3.35 billion, or 5.8%, in public eduction spending, the largest item in the budget. Higher education received a boost of 2.8%, or $865.5 million in additional spending.

Other items include $300 million appropriated for local and state transportation projects. Under the bill, school, higher education and state agency employees will receive a 1.5% raise at a cost of $64.5 million to the state’s general fund.

The budget will also include an estimated $1.63 billion from the American Rescue Plan, the stimulus package recently passed by Congress.

Many Republicans though said the budget is too large and relies too much on one-time stimulus funding.

“It’s inflated and dependent on federal money. It cannot be sustained if we enter into a federal recession,” Pirtle said in describing the bill.

Burt, whose House District 33 represents portions of Chaves, Lincoln and Otero counties, said the budget contains items that he does like, such as increased funding for judicial districts and funding to expand access to broadband.

However, he is worried that the budget’s dependence on a one-time infusion of federal dollars will result in the state using that money to expand existing programs and create new ones that cannot be sustained when those federal funds dry up.

“And we are talking hundreds of millions of dollars that we have no guarantee is going to be there when we fall off that cliff,” he said. Burt added that could then force the state to end up either cutting funding or having to fund those programs with state revenue.

Burt said that what is needed is for lawmakers to examine how effective state agencies and programs are in spending their money.

“If they are working, let’s continue to fund them, if they are not working, then let’s look at either changing them to make them work, or getting rid of them and applying that money in a more efficient manner to some other program that is working,” Burt said.

One senator said that while she typically votes for the budget, she did not this year because of the possible impact federal rules and proposed state legislation — that could impact the oil and gas industry — could have on state revenue down the road.

Kernan said she worries the constraints and fee increases on the industry’s operation in the state could push producers out of the state.

“Overall I don’t know how I can vote for a budget when bills passing through this legislature are basically attacking the industry that funds almost 40% of the budget,” she said.

Twelve amendments were proposed and rejected during the Senate debate. One by Pirtle would have required full-time employment positions in state government agencies that have been vacant for more than two years be eliminated. Another would have limited spending from the governor’s contingency fund to only products made in New Mexico.

The House had already passed a version of HB 2 in February. The version passed by the Senate now heads back to the House for consideration.

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

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