Senate panel trims salary proposals in budget

By Barry Massey

SANTA FE — A $5.1 billion budget proposal heading to the Senate for a vote provides for lower pay raises for teachers and public employees than a House-passed blueprint for financing government.

The Senate Finance Committee endorsed the budget Wednesday after making amendments that resulted in a net spending increase of almost $6 million over the operating budget passed by the House last week.

The Senate panel’s budget provides for a spending increase of 8.5 percent increase, or about $398 million, for public education and general government operations in the 2007 fiscal year which starts July 1.

The committee trimmed about $21.7 million from the House-passed budget and then added $27.5 million to various programs.

Among the biggest changes by the Senate panel was a 0.5 percent reduction in proposed compensation increases for all state employee and education workers. That lowered spending by about $15.5 million.

The budget provides enough money for:
—4.5 percent pay raises for teachers and other public school workers and 9 percent raises for educational assistants. The governor had proposed 6 percent increases for teachers and other certified personnel such as nurses and librarians, and 4 percent pay raises for non-certified school and transportation workers.

—4 percent raises faculty and employees at colleges and universities.

—9.5 percent raises for state police officers in the Department of Public Safety. The higher pay is to help recruit and retain officers.

—Raises averaging 4.5 percent for state employees.
The committee added $15.4 million for the Medicaid program to provide higher reimbursement rates for doctors that care for the poor, disabled and lower-income children covered by the program.

Several other health programs also picked up money in the committee-approved budget: $2 million for mental health programs; $600,000 million for rural primary health care clinics, $400,000 for methamphetamine treatment, $300,000 for mammograms for low-income women and $500,000 for treatment of hepatitis C. The measure provides $750,000 to increase payment rates to child care providers through a program by the Children, Youth and Families Department, and $3 million for services to the elderly.

Gov. Bill Richardson has criticized the House-passed budget, saying it was unacceptable because it didn’t fully fund many of the education and health initiatives that are part of his self-proclaimed “year of the child.”

The Senate committee didn’t address many of the governor’s objections. For instance, Richardson wanted more than $5 million to subsidize families in buying health insurance for children ages five and under. Lawmakers didn’t provide money for that.

The Senate panel did allocate $1.4 million for advanced placement classes and for summer reading and math institutes — programs advocated by Richardson, although he wanted more money for them.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Finance Committee, said the extra money for health and other programs supports “children and our most vulnerable residents.”

“The year of the child begins with good health,” Smith said.
In addition to the $5 billion for next year’s operations of government and education, the bill provides $289 million for special projects and one-time programs and to supplement budgets of some agencies facing shortfalls this year. That’s $11.5 million higher than the House-passed budget.

The Senate committee added $4 million for removal of water-guzzling salt cedar trees and about $3.7 million for programs in the state engineer’s office.

After the Senate approves its version of the budget, the Senate and House must resolve their differences before the Legislature sends a final compromise spending bill to the governor.