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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cuts to Education Seem Inevitable as Some Results of Dealmaking are Revealed

If you were following yesterday's liveblogging of the New Mexico Legislature's special session by NMI or the Tweeting of various reporters on Twitter (#NMSpecial), you encountered a lot of hurry up and wait, or just plain wait, wait, wait -- accompanied by a photo or two of empty rooms. Other than a sometimes tense debate in the Senate Committee of the Whole on a resolution by Sen. Mary Kay Papen (D-Las Cruces) urging legislators to voluntarily give up their small per diem raise provided by a hike in the federal per diem (upon which the legislature's rate is based), there wasn't much happening of consequence in the chambers or committee rooms during daylight hours. 

Almost all the action was taking place behind the scenes as legislative leaders battled behind closed doors for and against this cut or that, and negotiated through various channels with Governor Bill Richardson.

Sen. Papen's SCR 1 per diem proposal ended up being tabled into oblivion, but only after Sen. Richard Martinez (D-Espanola) held his own personal rave-up about the alleged abuse of per diem payments by certain unnamed lawmakers he said he'd been tracking. Sen. Martinez waved a piece of paper and thundered that it contained a list of legislators he personally knew had a habit of showing up late at interim committee meetings, snarfing down a free lunch and then fleeing the scene after signing in to get their per diem payments. 

Pushed for his list of per diem abusers, he backtracked and said the list only existed in his head, but not before he also complained that some first-year lawmakers had already learned the ropes and had quickly become very good at scamming undeserved per diem payments.

The discussion finally ended when Sen. Rod Adair (R-Roswell) mocked the Senators for worrying about unimportant $15 per diem increases when hundreds of millions of savings need to be found. Tempers were sometimes short in the fifth day of political maneuvering in the cramped quarters of the Roundhouse.

Long after the sun set, a few proposed fixes resulting from the day's battles came to light. Rep. Lucky Varela's (D-Santa Fe) HB 17, Reduce 2009 General Fund Appropriations, was passed in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee by a 11-6 vote. Five Republicans plus Dem Rep. Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) voted no. The bill would cut a total of $220 million from the budget, including $54 million in reduced funding for K-12 education. It's unclear how the bill will fare on the House floor, but it now appears that the Senate will deliberate on parameters of this appropriations bill today, rather than creating its own from scratch. NMI has a good recap on the bill.

In the Senate, Sen. Vernon Asbill's (R-Carlsbad) SB 13, School District Budget Flexibility, passed with a vote of 32-9, as amended on the floor. After many changes, the measure would allow schools to increase class sizes and cut the number of school days in response to budget cuts.

Another key piece of legislation considered in the House last night was Speaker Ben Lujan's (D-Santa Fe) HB 3, Fund Transfers and Appropriation Voids. The measure passed the House by a margin of 45-21, as amended, late in the evening after much wrangling. The bill also passed the Senate late yesterday by a vote of 36-5, as amended. The only Dem to vote no was Sen. Cisco McSorley (D-Albuquerque). At about Noon today, the House concurred on a voice vote about the Senate amendment, so the bill will go to the Governor's desk.

The bill requires so-called "sweeps" of existing unspent funds from various capital projects and most agency budgets, totaling more than $100,000,000 that would be transferred to the state's general fund to make up for deficits. It patches holes in this year's budget but doesn't address gaps projected for future years.

Lt. Governor Diane Denish issued a statement immediately after the bill's passage in the Senate, saying,

“The legislature has taken a necessary though painful step of passing House Bill 3 that will sweep cash balances from a variety of funds. Difficult though this decision may be, the fact that it is distributed over many different programs and funds is a fair approach to achieving critically needed reductions. Our highly successful Pre-K program that I have long championed will lose more than one million dollars, but, as I’ve said all along these painful cuts must be shared by all. It is my hope that in the future some of these funds could be restored.”

The word is that key legislators are suggesting that education cuts will be held to 2 percent or less, with agency cuts in the 4-5 percent range, but that could change in today's negotiations. Gov. Richardson's proposal recommended education cuts of 1.5 percent and 3.5 percent cuts in the rest of the government. Education spending amounts to about 43 percent of the state's current budget. 

The Senate also gave unanimous approval -- without debate -- to a measure allocating $370,000 to pay for the special session. The bill had previously been passed in the House, so it's going to Gov. Richardson's desk for his signature.

NMI is again liveblogging the action at the New Mexico Legislature.

October 22, 2009 at 11:16 AM in Diane Denish, Economy, Populism, Education, Gov. Bill Richardson, Government, Local Politics, NM Office of Recovery and Reinvestment | Permalink


We knew this would happen as soon as the tax bills were voted non-germane. What else could the lawmakers do?

Posted by: JS | Oct 22, 2009 1:49:16 PM

I feel for the legislators. Richardson put them in a box by not allowing tax increases. He is the reason that education will have to be cut.

Posted by: mark | Oct 22, 2009 3:26:14 PM