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A budget that shows New Mexico’s priorities

February 24, 2019 GMT

The 2019 session of the New Mexico Legislature is about to get real.

That’s because a $7 billion budget has passed the House of Representatives and is going to the Senate, where the work of making adjustments and approval will take place. Then, changes will be worked out and the budget will be on the way to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. It’s a document that fulfills the basic role of any budget — to show the priorities of the people putting it together.

Yes, the Democratic majority is spending more money than before, taking advantage of the oil-and-gas fueled surplus but also responding to years of cutbacks and austerity. Most essentially, the state’s bank account — its fund reserves — will be increased to $1.6 billion, or 22.4 percent of recurring revenues, so that money is there when budgets are not so robust in the future. A savings account is essential because with the ups and down in the oil and gas market, today’s surplus can be tomorrow’s deficit.

With this budget, the House also is responding to demands of a court order that the state improve education for at-risk students. This means boosting education spending to $3.25 billion, with 6 percent raises for teachers and school employees. More money will be spent on educating children at risk of failing and on expanding pre-K offerings. This is a budget that seeks to overturn the status quo and make the improvements in education that a court requires and New Mexicans are demanding. Education is priority one, and this budget makes that commitment clear.

Other areas that would receive essential increases in spending include a 10 percent hike for the embattled Children Youth and Families Department, 7 percent for the Department of Health and a much-needed 6 percent boost in funding for colleges and universities. We do trust, however, that the Senate will remove language that attempts to strong-arm the University of New Mexico into reinstating sports cut because of deficit athletic department spending; the House Appropriations and Finance Committee is not the place to make decisions about university sports. State employees will receive raises, some 4 percent and others 6 percent; the justice system will get a much-needed boost of cash, up $11.5 million from last fiscal year; and $5 million for job training and $14 million for local economic development efforts.

Important to all New Mexicans is the inclusion of $256 million for road projects around the state. As a report from The Road Information Program, TRIP, showed last week, too many state roads are in lousy shape. Some 56 percent of the state’s major roads and highways are in poor or mediocre condition, with drivers paying the price because of damage to their cars and trucks. Besides the millions for projects, there will be $98 million for highway maintenance and $53 million for the local government roads fund.

First in priority — whether for maintenance or new projects — has to be strengthening the road systems in Southern New Mexico, where traffic from oil and gas rigs has become a major safety risk. The work being done in those counties, often to the detriment of quality of life, is why New Mexico is enjoying a budget surplus. They deserve quick attention, despite the many competing needs.

Even with this big infusion of spending, the Department of Transportation has identified $3 billion in outstanding need; it’s the necessity of catching up with long-delayed work that could be the best argument for increasing the tax on gasoline. That’s a worthy debate to have.

Another debate, we are certain, will focus on how much and how fast New Mexico should pay off production credits owed to film companies that make movies and TV shows in the state. A cap on rebates — currently $50 million a year — caused a backlog to build up, a gift from the last administration so to speak. The House budget contains $150 million in one-time money to reduce what’s owed, currently estimated at $250 million.

With Netflix’s purchase of Albuquerque Studios, the film industry in New Mexico is thriving. Wiping the slate clean — just not all at once — lays a good foundation for future growth. Discussion on removing the $50 million cap needs to take place, so that the state doesn’t ever fall so far behind again.

Whether the cap should be lifted completely or simply increased — there’s even some discussion about keeping a cap for movies and reducing it for TV — needs a full debate. New Mexico’s current budget surplus, however, means it can position itself for growth in film and movies, continuing to create jobs and opportunity for citizens while reaping the benefits of a clean industry.

Such discussions, we are sure, will be taking place in the Senate, where fiscal hawks likely will tighten the budget. Adjustments will be made. But instead of a last-minute budget on the governor’s desk late in the session, we hope to see a budget passed by both chambers on its way to Gov. Lujan Grisham with time to spare. This is how the process should work. Now, let’s keep the budget ball rolling.