House approves $5 billion budget

By Barry Massey: The Associated Press

SANTA FE — State spending would increase by 8.4 percent next year to pay for public education and general government programs under a $5.1 billion budget bill approved unanimously by the House.

About two-thirds of the proposed spending increase is directed at public schools and colleges and universities.

The Senate approved a separate spending bill that allocates $30 million for programs earmarked by lawmakers and Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration — ranging from Webcasts of legislative proceedings to prenatal care for needy New Mexicans. The measure — called the “junior” budget — is expected to grow to $45 million once the House adds money for its members’ projects.

Secretary of Finance and Administration James Jimenez said the governor wanted the two spending bills combined so there was just one measure financing government operations.

He said the proposed spending by lawmakers “doesn’t yet adequately address a couple of areas that are important to the governor,” including health care for children.

The House-passed budget bill is the main blueprint for financing state government and education in the upcoming 2007 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The measure now goes to the Senate, and senators are likely to increase spending on some programs. The budget will head to the governor after the House and Senate agree on a final version of the proposal.

The proposed spending increase is higher than what has occurred in recent years because the state is flush with money. During the past decade, for example, spending growth has averaged just under 6 percent. New Mexico’s revenue collections are better than expected mostly because of high energy prices. Taxes and royalties from oil and natural gas production increase as prices go up.

The House-approved budget calls for $40 million of next year’s projected revenues to be transferred to the state’s severance tax permanent fund, which provides a yearly distribution to help finance government operations, and $40 million to the water trust fund, which helps pay for water projects.

Public schools account for almost half of the proposed spending increase in the budget bill.

The measure allocates money for school districts to provide 5 percent across-the-board pay raises for teachers and other school workers and 9.5 percent salary increases for educational assistants. Lawmakers say teaching assistants receive low pay, some earning only about $12,000 a year.

There’s money in the budget for a $45,000 minimum salary for experienced teachers meeting a certain licensing requirement and $8 million to expand pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds. The governor had requested $10 million for the preschool services, which started this year as a pilot program.

The House budget doesn’t spend all the revenues projected for next year. About $90 million is left unallocated and will cover the cost of the “junior” budget and potential tax reductions such as those recommended by the governor.

Rep. Kiki Saavedra, D-Albuquerque, chairman of the committee that assembled the budget, said lawmakers had received money requests $4 billion higher than the spending for programs and projects in the House budget proposal.

“My point is there are great needs in this state and we can address only so much,” said Saavedra.