SANTA FE, New Mexico — Democratic legislators pressed a plan Wednesday to increase annual state spending by more than a half-billion dollars to expand early childhood education programs, boost teacher salaries and shore up health care for the poor.
The state House debated the merits of a $7.6 billion general fund spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Approval would send the bill to the Senate, where a variety of amendments are likely.
State economists are forecasting an $800 million surplus in state government income for the coming fiscal year that is linked closely to record-setting oil production in the state.
Republicans in the House minority criticized the proposed $530 million, 7.5% increase as irresponsible and unsustainable in the event of an oil-sector downturn.
They outlined their own plan that would increase spending by a more modest 4.3% and called for giving every New Mexico resident a $200 rebate.
Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said the Democratic budget would likely lead to furloughs and spending cuts. A plunge in oil prices in 2016 led to government austerity measures, including spending cuts at public colleges and higher entrance fees at state museums and historic sites.
“We are terrified about the spending being proposed,” Harper said. “We have seen this movie before.”
Both parties are backing 5% pay increases for public school teachers as the state struggles to retain and recruit educators, with smaller increases for school staff and state government employees.
“You would likely see some teachers getting more than a 5% raise based on where they are teaching,” House speaker Brian Egolf said ahead of the floor debate.
The budget proposal would increase state spending on Medicaid amid a push to enroll more eligible patients by the administration of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, but leaves out funding for her initiative to provide tuition-free college to in-state students.
Egolf predicted that the state Senate would insert funding for the tuition-free college plan. A budget plan is due on the governor’s desk by Feb. 20.
House Republicans said state agencies have been unable to spend all the money they receive, noting that $106 million was returned to state coffers during the past fiscal year that ended in June 2019 — including $35 million in money intended for salaries.
Annual public school spending would increase to $3.45 billion amid a push to extend the school year at many school districts. General fund spending on Medicaid would increase by more than $50 million to nearly $1.1 billion — including new support for mental health care and addiction treatment.