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Governor signs $1B spending boost, vetoes pay for judges

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham talks with an audience at a retirement center in Santa Fe on Tuesday. Lujan Grisham this week signed a $530 million tax relief package and an annual state budget that increases spending by $1 billion, or 14%. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press)

SANTA FE – New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a $1 billion annual budget expansion for state government into law on Wednesday to shore up spending on public education, health care and infrastructure while boosting salaries for bureaucrats, state police and public school educators.

The $8.5 billion general fund budget boosts spending by 14% for the fiscal year starting July 1, with pay increases ranging from a $15 minimum hourly wage for public employees in state government and schools to 16% salary increases for state police.

The bill funds a 7% raise for all school workers and employees at most state agencies, and many school teachers and counselors will get higher raises because of increased minimum salaries at various career stages.

At the same time, the governor vetoed a separate $50 million wish-list from legislators for small projects, ranging from a hay bailer to money for a youth symphony and debate programs, arguing that the bill circumvented a standard vetting process and could lead to waste. She declined to sign a major pay increase for high court justices and state district court judges, without comment.

Under the budget plan, annual spending on K-12 public education would increase by about $425 million, or 12%, to nearly $3.9 billion. Annual Medicaid spending would increase by about $240 million to $1.3 billion, extending post-partum care for a year, as the federal government winds down pandemic-related subsidies to the program that gives free health care to the impoverished.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat running for re-election in November, highlighted state investments that boost teacher salaries, provide tuition-free college and teaching degrees, boost spending on pay for law enforcement and underwrite construction of a retirement home for military veterans in Truth or Consequences.

“This budget makes transformative investments exactly where they’re needed: from historic raises for New Mexico educators and growing the country’s most expansive tuition-free college program to creating a new fund to hire public safety officers,” Lujan Grisham said in a news release. “We are taking full advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to strategically and meaningfully build upon our progress to lift up every New Mexico family.”

The annual state spending plan from a Democratic-led Legislature relies on a windfall in state government income linked to surging oil production and prices, along with federal pandemic relief. The state would still end the fiscal year in June 2023 with more than $2.3 billion in estimated general fund reserves – a financial cushion that is likely to grow amid record setting market prices for U.S. crude oil amid a U.S. ban on Russian oil imports.

On Tuesday, the governor signed a tax relief package worth $530 million in its first year, including $250 rebates.

Confronting a deadline at noon Wednesday to approve legislation, the governor signed a criminal justice bill that expands the ranks of state district judges, boosts retention pay for municipal police and sheriff’s deputies, and bestows million-dollar death benefits for relatives of police killed in the line of duty.

Legislators assembled the bill amid outrage over a record-setting spate of homicides in Albuquerque, while balking at proposals from the governor and prosecutors to ban pretrial release for people accused of certain violent and sexual crimes.

Instead the bill expands surveillance of criminal defendants as they await trial with 24-hour monitoring of ankle-bracelet tracking devices. And it sets out requirements for crime reduction grants that pursue alternatives to traditional prosecution and incarceration and expand intervention programs to rein in gun violence.