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Push To Raise Teacher Pay Stymied in New Mexico

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Despite backing from both the governor and the legislature, efforts to increase the pay of New Mexico school employees have run into a number of stumbling blocks in recent weeks.

With the legislative session scheduled to end on March 18, lawmakers last week were debating a new fiscal 1990 budget, after Gov. Garry Carruthers vetoed an appropriations bill. That measure had included a 5 percent raise for fiscal 1990, which begins July 1, and a 5 percent bonus for the last three months of the current fiscal year. The bonus would have averaged $317 for each teacher and school employee.

Lobbyists for the state's two major teachers' unions say the pay raise did not play a role in Mr. Carruthers' veto decision, noting that he had backed the idea in his State of the State Message this year.

The Governor vetoed the state spending plan because it left out many of his priorities and because he felt it exceeded his projections for state revenues, said John Mitchell, president of the New Mexico Federation of Teachers.

Mr. Mitchell added, however, that union officials were disappointed by the alternative budget that the Governor submitted to the legislature. Although it included funding for the raises, he said, it eliminated funding to cover the rising costs of school districts' insurance premiums.

"That could put the districts in the position where, if they paid to make up the insurance shortfall, they wouldn't have the money for the raise," Mr. Mitchell explained.

Attorney General's Opinion

Legislators had to come up with some creative lawmaking to provide teachers and school employees with a bonus this year after Attorney General Hal Stratton threw a monkey wrench in their plan.

In an informal opinion last month, Mr. Stratton said that the proposed increase was illegal because the New Mexico Constitution forbids giving additional compensation to public employees after they have signed a contract. Most school employees in the state work under a contract.

In order to bypass the constitutional quagmire, legislators and lobbyists came up with a plan to require teachers and employees to perform extra work during the April-to-June period to enable them to qualify for the bonus.

"The money could be paid out if the teachers are providing additional services," said Steve Lemken of the National Education Association of New Mexico. Because teachers already perform a number of extra duties, he said, such as grading papers at home, officials "would just have to use a checklist" to indicate that teachers qualify for the bonus.

"Hal Stratton is not a friend of education by any means, but we seem to have satisfied him," Mr. Lemken said.

Solution Not Perfect

But Mr. Mitchell of the nmft said he was not totally pleased with the way the problem was resolved.

"We believe it makes it an 'extra-pay-for-extra-work' bonus," he said. "Now school employees may be required to do extra work."

And although teachers may easily qualify for the bonus, non-certified employees, who are supposed to be paid overtime for extra work under federal law, may not, he added.

The union officials said their main concern at present was making certain that the new budget includes funding for both the pay raises and districts' insurance costs.

"We don't believe the Senate or House will go along with the Governor's proposal," said Mr. Mitchell. "The House appropriations and finance committee is working on a budget that maintains the raise and provides an appropriate level for employee benefits."

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