Democrats defend online legislative work in New Mexico

A man walks on the second floor of the New Mexico State Capitol building while emergency medical technicians wait to administer COVID-19 tests on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The building was closed to the public at the start of the pandemic. State leaders are holding most meetings virtually, with routine testing offered to legislators, staff members and the media.

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's state government is likely deliver a jolt of one-time spending amid the pandemic and provide sustained funding increases on health care and public education under a newly drafted budget bill.

The lead House budget committee on Monday unanimously endorsed the spending plan for the coming fiscal year that increases general fund spending by $332 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

That represents a 4.6% increase over current fiscal year spending. Total general fund spending would increase to $7.39 billion under the plan that includes a 1.5% raise for employees throughout state government, K-12 schools and public colleges and universities. Larger raises are slated for prison guards.

A vote by the full House of Representatives is scheduled this week before the proposal moves to the Senate for possible amendments and approval.

Public schools in New Mexico rely on the state for most is their funding, and the draft budget would increase K-12 spending by 5.5% to $3.39 billion.

“We want to extend the school year regarding the loss of learning we’ve seen this last year,” said Democratic state Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup, chairwoman of the House budget committee.

State Rep. Phelps Anderson, a former Republican without current political affiliation, said that increased state spending is warranted in response to the pandemic. He too expressed concern about reviving public education after a prolonged reliance on online teaching.

“We need state government to do its part in lifting us out of this economic crisis," he said. “I too am dismayed. ... We've got students who are locked out of schools. We've got students who are lost.”

General fund pending will increase by $64 million for Medicaid. New Mexico has the nation's highest enrollment per capita in the federally subsidized health care program for people living in poverty or on the cusp.

Local Medicaid enrollment has surged since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic. State officials say that is due both to economic hardship and a temporary agreement lets people stay on Medicaid as they recover financially.

The draft budget also would boost current-year spending by $119 million to expand grants to businesses to offset job training and infrastructure projects, ramp up tourism marketing as pandemic-related travel restrictions are litigation aimed at preserving local water rights.

A companion bill the budget calls for the state to pay down debts to the state unemployment trust fund by $325 million. That would take tax burden off businesses to replenish the fund after it delivered unprecedented financial support to the unemployed in 2020.

Separately, local school districts are expected to receive $439 million in federal relief funding that was approved in December by Congress and and President Donald Trump, without further direct funding to state and local governments.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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