New Mexico Senate approves budget boost for schools, police

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico state Senate approved a $6.3 billion spending plan Tuesday that increases criminal justice spending and boosts pay for public school teachers, state government workers and elected officials.

The budget would increase general fund spending by $259 million — or about 4 percent — for the fiscal year starting July 1. A rebound in the oil and natural gas sectors is providing a windfall to the state after two years of austere budgeting.

The budget also devotes more money to early childhood education programs, Medicaid, business subsidies, tourism promotion, state universities and a spacecraft launch facility.

The bill cleared the Senate, 40-2, and now returns to the House for consideration of recent amendments.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has the authority to veto any provision of the final bill and has stressed the need shore up spending on law enforcement — especially for the district attorney's office overseeing Albuquerque. That office would receive a 16.5 percent operating budget increase, with additional funding to prosecute violent crimes against children, create a crime strategies unit and clear a backlog of court cases.

Senate budget amendments also boosted pay by 8.5 percent for state police, prison guards and parole officers.

FBI statistics show that reports of violent crime in Albuquerque jumped around 16 percent in 2016, though its violent crime rate is not among the highest in the nation when it comes to cities of similar size and demographics.

"We didn't give them everything they wanted, but they were included in the process — especially on the compensation," Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith, the Senate's lead budget negotiator, said of the governor's office.

The bill would leave the state with spending reserves equal to 10 percent of annual general fund spending. A major credit rating agency has said that's enough for the state to withstand a mild recession or oil-industry downturn without disruption.

Smith and Senate colleagues warned that state finances are still vulnerable to fluctuations in oil markets, a recent surge in tax appeals and a pending lawsuit that calls for sweeping changes to state funding for public education.

The budget calls for a 2.3 percent on public school funding to $2.7 billion. School districts in New Mexico depend on the state for the majority of funding. Teacher pay would increase by an average of 2.5 percent under the plan, with some discretion left to individual school districts on assigning raises.

"Finally we have some room to do those raises, because those are the people who are taking care of our kids in school," said Democratic Sen. George Munoz of Gallup, whose wife is a public school principal.

The budget bill includes a 10 percent pay raise for statewide elected officials beginning next year including the governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Those salaries have not increased since 2002. Base pay for state workers would increase by 2 percent.

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