New Mexico Senate Passes Budget That Protects Children, Schools, Courts and Environment

The New Mexico Senate yesterday passed a $6.23 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2016 by a vote of 38-3. The Senate budget debate was characterized by general overall consensus on spending goals under the State’s current revenue constraints. The fiscal year (FY) ’16 budget begins on July 1st and reflects the State government’s planned operating expenses for the coming 12-month period.  The FY ’16 budget contains a 1.3 percent increase over the FY ’15 budget of $6.15 billion. Falling oil prices, which have a negative impact on the State’s revenue, were a central concern of senators in crafting the budget plan.

“It’s the best we could do with what we have,” said Finance Committee Chairman Sen. John Arthur Smith (D-35-Dona Ana, Hidalgo, Luna & Sierra). “We certainly hope that oil prices will turn around. We’re moving ahead precariously. The oil and gas industry is the backbone of our budget, and the falling prices are having a tremendous impact.”

The Senate budget differed from the House and the Governor’s recommended budgets in several important areas, including the judicial system, economic development, schools and environmental regulatory agencies.

When it came to funding the state’s judiciary, the Governor and House’s proposed budgets flat-lined spending for district courts, drug courts, court-appointed attorneys and public defenders. The Senate, in its budget, improved the courts’ funding and included needed, healthy increases for the judicial system.

In funding the state’s public education system, the Senate protected school districts from cuts, and budgeted modest increases in several key areas in the FY ’16 budget. The ‘Kindergarten to 3 Plus’ Fund received an increase from $21 million in FY ’15 to $23 million in FY ‘16. The Preschool Fund was increased from $19 million in FY ’15 to $21 million in FY ’16. New teachers will see a pay increase of $2,000 in FY ’16 to raise their starting pay to $34,000. Funding for the controversial Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam or standards-based assessment was removed in the Senate budget from the formula portion or State Equalization Guarantee (SEG), and included instead in the non-mandatory or the ‘below the line’ portion of the education budget.

The Senate rejected budget increases pushed by the Governor that would allow the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) more discretion than local school districts to select recipients of state education budget dollars. The Senate also disagreed on increasing the education budget’s ‘below the line’ or discretionary funds for PED, preferring instead to maintain fund increases in the formula portion of the budget that distributes monies evenly across school districts.

The troubled Children, Youth and Family Department (CYFD) will see an $8 million increase in FY ’16 under the Senate budget, mostly for more staff and program support in the Child Protective Services (CPS) division, which works to protect at-risk children. In the past, Gov. Martinez failed to spend $6 million appropriated for CPS by the Legislature.

The Corrections Department also will see substantial increases of 3.8 percent overall for increased salaries, recruitment and other needs.

Other areas where senators disagreed with the Governor and House on the FY ’16 budget were the funding levels for regulatory agencies such as the Department of Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources (EMNRD). Reflecting the Senate’s high prioritization of protecting water and air, the Senate budget wants $20 million for EMNRD, compared to the Governor’s $16 million budget for the agency.