SANTA FE (AP) — Gov. Bill Richardson on Saturday proposed a 1.5 percent cut in education spending as New Mexico lawmakers during a special legislative session decide how to backfill a $650 million hole in this year’s state budget.
The proposal to cut public schools and colleges by at least $40 million was a turnabout for the governor, who had previously said he didn’t want to touch education.
He said the revision reflected the state’s “new budget realities.”
The revenue shortfall is now projected at $650 million. Just weeks ago, it was thought to be $400 million for the fiscal year that began July 1.
“Cuts must include safeguards that classrooms, kids and teachers will not be affected,” Richardson said in a statement.
He did not elaborate, but a spokeswoman in his office said later that administrative costs was one example of possible cuts.
The special legislative session that began Saturday promised to turn into a pitched battle over how to balance this year’s $5.5 billion budget.
“It’s going to be ugly, any way we go … the problem is of such a large magnitude,” said Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith, a Democrat from Deming.
The education community said even a 1.5 percent cut was unacceptable.
Teachers, administrators, parents and school board members packed the Senate and House galleries, and youngsters toting red balloons marched around the Capitol yelling, “Don’t cut education.”
“They absolutely have to listen to this, or their heads are in the sand,” said Christine Trujillo, president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico.
Richardson made it clear in his official proclamation for the session that he doesn’t want lawmakers to consider tax changes, which he said would have little effect on the current budget year.
That issue can wait until the regular legislative session in January, he said.
Legislative leaders have agreed with that position, but some lawmakers are pushing ahead anyway with tax proposals.
They introduced a flurry of bills that included raising taxes on tobacco and alcohol and hiking income taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents.
A fight was looming over whether the Legislature has the authority to consider tax increases in light of the governor’s edict in the proclamation that legislation to fix the budget problem “shall not include” tax measures.
Some senators who favor tax hikes suggested he had overstepped his authority in telling lawmakers what not to do.
Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said the Senate was reviewing the limitations set by the governor to determine whether they left the Legislature enough leeway to “carry out its constitutional duty” to address the budget issues.
The proposed 1.5 percent education cut was part of a broader set of proposals from the governor that also included cutting agency spending by 3.5 percent but avoided layoffs and furloughs.
Ava White, a 16-year-old junior at Highland High School in Albuquerque, said she was concerned that cutting school budgets would result in larger classes.
She said students already are crowded together at tables and sharing books.
“It’s really hard to learn when somebody’s breathing down your neck,” she said.