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New Mexico House endorses billion-dollar budget boost

February 4, 2022 GMT
A janitor reports for work at the state Capitol rotunda during the annual legislative session on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The 60-day meeting of the Legislature began hashing out the state budget, and consider sweeping proposals on education, medicare, and policing last month. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
A janitor reports for work at the state Capitol rotunda during the annual legislative session on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The 60-day meeting of the Legislature began hashing out the state budget, and consider sweeping proposals on education, medicare, and policing last month. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
A janitor reports for work at the state Capitol rotunda during the annual legislative session on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The 60-day meeting of the Legislature began hashing out the state budget, and consider sweeping proposals on education, medicare, and policing last month. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
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A janitor reports for work at the state Capitol rotunda during the annual legislative session on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The 60-day meeting of the Legislature began hashing out the state budget, and consider sweeping proposals on education, medicare, and policing last month. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
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A janitor reports for work at the state Capitol rotunda during the annual legislative session on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The 60-day meeting of the Legislature began hashing out the state budget, and consider sweeping proposals on education, medicare, and policing last month. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — State House lawmakers in New Mexico endorsed a $1 billion increase in general fund spending Thursday to reinforce health care for the poor, teacher salaries, environmental regulation, policing and more.

Lead House budget negotiator and Democratic Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup said the proposal uses a surge in state government income to improve education, bolster public safety and spur economic growth in a state with the highest rate of childhood poverty in the American West.

“With the needs that we have in this state, people want the money out; they want that money working for them,” Lundstrom said.

The Hose voted 56-13 in favor, with some Republicans in opposition, moving the bill to the Senate for consideration.

In all, the bill calls for state general fund spending of $8.47 billion for the fiscal year starting on July 1 — a nearly 14% increase from current annual spending of $7.45 billion.

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It would leave room for $400 in tax cuts and maintains an unspent general fund balance of at least $2.6 billion — equal to 30% of annual spending obligations.

“We believe that this will lead to transformational outcomes for the people of our state while maintaining that robust reserve,” Lundstrom said.

House Republicans emphasized their support for even greater companion tax cuts, forcing a failed vote on whether to fast-track a bill to eliminate taxes on Social Security income. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is backing that and other tax cuts during a 30-day legislative session that ends on Feb. 17.

Republicans also questioned a $50 million allocation to future investments in New Mexico-based venture capital projects that can be risky for investors but have the potential for above-average returns.

“That’s not something we would do were we not floating on an ocean of money,” said Republican Rep. Larry Scott of Hobbs.

House Democrats touted unprecedented investments in K-12 schools, including funding for teacher raises, under a $3.87 billion budget for public education.

“That is a historic investment in New Mexico children,” said Democratic Rep. Candie Sweetser of Deming. “We are investing in those teachers and it really does matter.”

More than $40 million is dedicated to culturally appropriate teaching materials that cater to Native American children and non-English speaking households, as lawmakers respond to court rulings that show a failure to provide adequate educational opportunities to low-income, minority and disabled students.

An increase of more than a quarter-billion dollars in spending is aimed at shoring up the state’s Medicaid program and other benefits for poor people, including emergency food and temporary cash benefits.

New spending also would bolster permanent nursing staffs at hospitals and extend pregnancy-related Medicaid coverage to mothers for a year after giving birth, up from two months.

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Salaries would increase by at least 7% for public employees in state government and public education, with a $15 hourly minimum. Even larger pay hikes are slated for state police.

Other provisions would create a new climate change bureau to oversee efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emission. The plan puts $9 million into grants to prevent violence, amid a record setting spate of homicides in Albuquerque.

Separately, the state Senate voted in favor of election-year initiatives to shore up voting procedures and to rein in climate change, sending two bills to the House for consideration.

The election bill, endorsed on a 39-0 vote, would usher in new efforts to improve the accuracy of voter registration rolls and new rules for election challengers and watchers, who monitor polling places and flag problems for precinct boards and judges. Training would be required for challengers and watchers, with a ban on video or audio recordings at poll sites.

Senators clashed over a Democrat-sponsored bill to reduce pollution from the transportation sector by establishing a low-carbon fuel standard, with Republicans warning of higher pump prices for gasoline. The bill won approval on a 25-6 vote, moving to the House.

The proposed clean-fuel standard — similar to systems in California and Oregon — gradually reduces the allowable amount of greenhouse gases linked to the production, blending and transportation of fuels such as gasoline, hydrogen, ethanol, diesel and biodiesel derived from used restaurant oil. Requirements don’t apply to retail fuel stations.

Bill sponsor Mimi Stewart, the Senate’s top-ranked Democrat, said the regulations would attract new industrial entrepreneurs, improve air quality and address pressing environmental threats like wildfires and flooding that accompany climate change.

The Environment Department would hire a half-dozen full time employees to roll out the clean fuel program over a two year period.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.