SANTA FE, New Mexico — New Mexico's Republican-led House of Representatives voted to approve a $6.3 billion budget that increases spending on Medicaid health care, early childhood education and prisons while cutting funding to state colleges and universities.
The spending bill was rewritten over the past week after state economists slashed revenue expectations for the year starting in July by more than $200 million because of low crude oil prices and weaker-than-expected tax receipts.
The general fund budget plan passed with a 38-31 party-line vote. It would increase spending by $81 million, or 1.3 percent over the current fiscal year. The majority of that money will come from raiding agency coffers and special reserves for spare cash.
"We worked hard to secure support for necessary priorities. This budget will fund the initiatives that have been passed this session aimed to protect New Mexico families," Larry Larranaga, R-Albuquerque, said. The chairman of the House appropriations and finance committee added that the budget also includes pay raises to state police and corrections officers. "It was tough, but we were also able to increase funding for education programs and job creation initiatives."
Democrats were critical, calling it the "Republican Bridge to Nowhere Budget."
"Today, House Republicans had a choice to join us in addressing the most critical issue in New Mexico - Governor Martinez's dismal economy and pervasive endemic poverty," said House Democratic Leader, Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. "This bill is the biggest Band-Aid of all; the sweep funds ignore the Martinez Administration's overspending while balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and the middle class."
Almost half of the spending increases — about $39 million — would offset surging costs for Medicaid for the poor and disabled. New Mexico opted into the federal Medicaid expansion in 2014 and full coverage now extends to 36 percent of the state's population.
The state begins paying 5 percent of the expansion tab in 2017, and will divert money from a tobacco settlement fund and a hospital at the University of New Mexico to help meet its obligations.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has placed public safety at the top of state priorities during the 30-day budgetary session. Allies on the House Appropriations and Finance Committee provided a $12 million, 4 percent funding increase to the Corrections Department to provide pay increases to guards and supervisors, accommodate more prisoners and pay for pricey medications to treat inmates with hepatitis C.
Funding for State Police salary increases also was included, while a recommended $2,000 increase to base salaries for new teachers was dropped because of faltering state revenue.
Public schools would receive an additional $31 million, a 1 percent bump that includes merit-based bonuses and stipends for educators backed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
The state's higher education budget would drop by $3 million.
Other modest spending increases were directed toward child protective services, a tourism marketing campaign, state courts, prosecutors and public defenders.
The bill's next stop would be the finance committee in the Democrat-led Senate, where spending on proposed criminal justice initiatives will come under scrutiny.
Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee say the House budget bill does not yet include money to implement a long list of bills for enhanced criminal sentences backed by Gov. Martinez.