Lawmakers propose pay hikes

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30-day legislative session begins Jan. 21

By Barry Massey
The Associated Press

SANTA FE — A legislative committee has recommended pay raises for state workers with a budget proposal Friday that would increase New Mexico spending by nearly $254 million next year.

The plan from the Legislative Finance Committee provides at least a 1.5 percent pay increase for state agency and public school workers and the potential for raises of 3 percent or more for certain employees.

The budget proposal will form the foundation for the Legislature’s spending decisions when lawmakers convene Jan. 21 for a 30-day session.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez plans to outline her budget recommendations this week.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and committee vice chairman, described the budget as a starting point and said he expected the Democratic-controlled Legislature to resolve any differences with the governor.

“I don’t see any huge obstacles at this stage. I think we can pull together on it,” Smith said in an interview.
Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, said Las Vegas does well under the LFC proposal.

“I am particularly pleased that we may receive $20 million to complete the Meadows Facility,” said Campos, who is a member of the LFC.

The committee proposed spending about $6.1 billion on public education and general government programs, including courts, prisons and health care for the needy, in the fiscal year that begins next July. That’s about a 4.3 percent increase over this year’s budget.

About $2 of every $5 in spending increases would go for higher salaries.

Enrique Knell, a spokesman for the governor, said Martinez is willing to work with legislators in a bipartisan manner, but the committee’s proposed budget “doles out millions of dollars worth of untargeted, across-the-board government employee pay raises, while dramatically underfunding economic development efforts.”

Teachers, other school workers, college and university staff and state government employees could see an average pay increase of 3 percent if schools and agencies boosted salaries across the board with the compensation money recommended by the committee.

The panel proposed 1.5 percent cost-of-living increases for all workers and would set aside money to give agencies and schools flexibility to provide additional pay raises to recruit and retain workers as well as give performance-based pay hikes. That additional money is enough to provide an extra 1.5 percent increase if it’s allocated to all employees.

The panel proposed higher raises for certain jobs that are hard to fill or because the state’s pay isn’t competitive. For example, state police, judges and district attorneys could see overall 8 percent salary increases under the committee’s proposal. Social workers in the Children, Youth and Families Department and educational assistants in schools could get as much as 6 percent.

Committee chairman Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, a Santa Fe Democrat, said the pay raises will allow the state to fill vacancies and reduce overtime that’s been growing because of staff shortages.

The committee also recommended increasing the base salary for entry-level teachers to $32,500 from $30,000. The governor has said she’ll propose an increase in starting teacher pay to $33,000 and supports money for merit raises for teachers and principals.

Charles Bowyer, executive director of the National Education Association-New Mexico, said he supported the committee’s educational pay proposals and its decision to funnel most money for spending increases through the state’s school funding formula, giving flexibility to local school boards.

“We think this budget protects local control,” Bowyer said.

The governor, however, favors earmarking money for certain school initiatives backed by her administration. That provides the Public Education Department with a greater voice in spending decisions, including approval of merit pay plans developed by a school district.

Rep. Don Tripp, a committee member and Socorro Republican, said the panel’s approach to educational spending “takes the legs out from under some of the reforms” that Martinez has advocated, such as merit pay.