House OKs bill cutting education funding

By Deborah Baker and Barry Massey

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Lawmakers in recession-wracked New Mexico who are trying to wrap up a special legislative session gave final approval to several deficit reduction bills and moved closer to deciding how much to cut schools and state agencies.

They’re trying to fill a $650 million hole in this year’s $5.5 billion state budget.

The House late Thursday voted 37-31 for a bill that cuts $257 million from state agencies and public schools and colleges. The cuts ranged from 2 percent to 7.6 percent.

However, the measure softens the blow to public schools by using other revenue, including federal stimulus funds, to replace state money.

Lawmakers said the bottom line was less than a 1 percent net reduction in the more than $2 billion flowing to schools this year through a funding formula.

Education cuts have been the thorniest issue of the session, with many in the Legislature’s Democratic majority adamantly opposed.

The bill, which went to the Senate, was approved over the objections of Republicans who said the cuts didn’t go far enough to bring spending in line with the state’s lower-than-expected revenues.

“If I lose 10 percent of my salary, I figure out how to live on 10 percent less and I do it right quick,” said House GOP Leader Tom Taylor of Farmington. “And in fact, I usually overdo it a little bit — start putting a little money away just in case it gets worse. It’s really what we need to be doing here.”

The budget cut measure took aim at the political appointees in Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration, requiring him to cut salaries and benefits of 80 so-called exempt employees. The bill ordered reductions of 7.6 percent for agencies under his control.

Many lawmakers have complained that the number of political appointees has increased substantially during the Democratic governor’s tenure.

A flurry of activity in both houses was a breakthrough on the sixth day of a special session aimed at keeping the state in the black.

The Legislature gave final approval to a measure that frees up $117 million, largely by raiding cash balances of state agencies and taking $68 million from a college scholarship fund. It went to the governor.

Opponents of the bill complained the fix was shortsighted.

“This is a short-term solution to a long-term problem, and I don’t think we’ve yet begun to address our base budget problems,” said GOP Whip Keith Gardner of Roswell.

That was a recurring complaint from Republicans, who said planned cuts in this year’s $5.5 billion budget weren’t deep enough.

“I think we need to continue to cut government,” said Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales.

Lawmakers also sent Richardson a bill trimming the spending of the Legislature’s year-round operations by 5.3 percent, or about $839,000. That includes the permanent finance and education committees and the chief clerks’ offices in the House and Senate.

Also in the pipeline:

— Transferring $225 million from state reserves to balance the books for the 2009 fiscal year. It was the most pressing piece of business for lawmakers, because the 2009 budget year ended June 30.

— Swapping the financing for 243 previously approved capital improvement projects. Severance tax bonds would be issued for them, freeing up $136 million in the state’s general fund account that had been set aside for the projects.

— Taking $29 million from a school building fund, the Public School Capital Outlay Fund, and using it to pay school districts’ property insurance premiums this year. It’s intended to help offset cuts to school districts.

— Allowing school districts to transfer to their operating accounts unexpended revenue from taxes levied for school improvements. The authorization would be good through next year and the money would have to be repaid.

— Giving school districts more flexibility in areas such as class sizes, teacher work loads and testing requirements, so they can better absorb cuts.