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House Dems push through budget plan

 

Last updated 6/20/2020 at 3:28pm



SANTA FE — Over the objections of Republicans who wanted to cut more, House Democrats pushed through a scaled-back state budget to shore up a $2 billion budget shortfall caused by the pandemic and oil price crash that devastated state coffers.

The House approved the roughly $7 billion budget in a 46-24 vote along party lines, with Republicans opposing the budget plan. In extended budget talks over the past several days, lawmakers continuously described the spending reductions as difficult decisions in the face of massive hits to state revenue.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has referred to the cuts as “austerity” for the state, but she has supported them at slightly different levels. The Senate Finance Committee approved a budget plan Friday, and the full Senate was expected to take up the legislation Saturday.

The budget bill proposes to use a combination of spending cuts, reserves and federal funding to deal with a projected $2 billion drop in state revenue for the next fiscal year.

“For me, this is the most important piece of the session, making sure we have solvency,” Rep. Patty Lundstrom, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said Friday.

The budget passed by the House cuts about $600 million in spending from the $7.6 billion plan passed in February, bringing the revised budget to $7 billion. That’s the same total amount of the fiscal year 2020 budget.

It’s also a bigger cut than Lujan Grisham proposed in her solvency plan, which called for a $457 million reduction.

Educators would receive pay raises of 1 percent, while state workers who earn less than $50,000 annually would also get a 1 percent salary increase, according to the bill. It’s a significantly smaller raise, down from the 4 percent pay raises in the original budget that passed in February.

The Opportunity Scholarship, Lujan Grisham’s plan to give New Mexicans free college tuition, would only get $5 million instead of the original $17 million.

Despite the reduction, Republicans, who had called for a dramatically smaller budget in February, said the budget still allows too much spending given the huge revenue shortfall.

“We don’t have a budget problem in our state — we have a spending problem in our state,” said state Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell.

The full House also approved a bill Friday that would provide tax relief to residents and businesses impacted by COVID-19.

House Bill 6, which now moves to the Senate, would temporarily waive interest and penalties for liabilities related to personal and corporate income taxes and gross receipts taxes.

The legislation would also double the temporary monthly distribution to local governments, sending more proceeds from online sales taxes to municipalities.

“The times call for a responsive set of proposals that keep our communities and local businesses at the forefront of our economic recovery,” said Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, one of the bill’s sponsors.

The House also passed legislation Friday in a 53-17 mostly party-line vote that would set up a commission to look into the issue of “qualified immunity” — a judicial precedent that makes it harder to prosecute police or other public officials in potential misconduct cases.

The issue has risen to prominence during the special session amid nationwide protests over police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Supporters argue “qualified immunity” makes it much more difficult to prosecute police in instances of brutality or excessive force that result in death.

“Recently we have seen some horrific ... civil rights violations that have taken place in other states,” said Rep. Karen Bash, D-Albuquerque, mentioning Floyd and other deaths of Black Americans who’ve made national news after they were killed by police.

“Black lives matter, and so do the lives of all New Mexicans. ... People in our streets have been demanding equal rights and protections regardless of their ethnicity or race,” she said.

 
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