New Mexico students rally at Capitol for education funding

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A rally in support of greater state funding for public education in New Mexico encircled the state Capitol to chants of "save our schools" on Thursday as time ran short for lawmakers to resolve a general fund budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year.

Sign-waving protesters paced around the circular state Capitol building and clogged the stairways indoors as they climbed to the offices of state Gov. Susana Martinez to deliver letters urging a budget compromise that might stave off further funding cuts to public schools.

Lawmakers have until Saturday at noon to send a budget proposal to Martinez, who has opposed outright tax increases.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent and former state education secretary Veronica Garcia canceled classes at midday so that staff, students and parents could attend the rally and urge lawmakers and the governor to bolster spending on K-12 schools.

She voiced hope that the rally would encourage Martinez to reconsider her no-new-taxes pledge.

"She could be a hero," Garcia said. "I hope that she will listen to all these people who represent those budget numbers that may seem abstract. ... If she chooses not to, I hope this will lead our Legislature to override a veto."

A spokesman for the governor said Thursday that she agrees with the teachers that classroom spending needs to be protected, and lashed out at the Democrat-led Senate.

"They need to pass a budget that doesn't raise taxes and protects classroom spending," spokesman Michael Lonergan said in an email.

A Senate-approved budget plan relies on a companion bill to raise $350 million in new taxes and fees on nonprofit hospitals, vehicle and gasoline sales, trucking permits and online retail purchases. The $6.1 billion spending plan would increase funding to public schools and courts slightly and hold current spending steady at at most state agencies.

Public schools in New Mexico rely on state government for nearly all of their operating budgets. The state cut spending on public schools in October by more than 2 percent and more recently swept funding from school district reserves to plug a current-year deficit.

School administrators statewide have warned that further cuts would likely lead to a shorter school year, layoffs or both.

Matt Kelly, a public school speech and language pathologist, attended the rally with two school-aged daughters and blamed the governor for rising tensions over the state budget.

"Susana Martinez has had more than enough options to raise revenues," said Kelly, ticking off a list of tax proposals. "She's come back with the refrain, 'I will not do anything against New Mexico's values.' I do lay this at her feet. Compromises have been offered."

Lawmakers in the Republican House minority said this week they are urging colleagues to avoid a veto and shore up the budget by transferring money from legislative retirement accounts and capital spending accounts.

A proposal to increase tax on tobacco products to boost funding for public schools has voted down by a panel of lawmakers on Thursday. It was not part of the Senate-approved budget package.


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