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Column: Spending smarter, not just spending more, occupies lawmakers

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With Democrats in control of both houses of the Legislature and a new Democratic governor, the fear is that they’ll go on a “spending spree.” This is the favorite phrase of Republicans, who regard themselves as a check on Democratic excesses.

So let me assure you: There will be no spending spree because Democrats have the same fear.

Last week I heard even the most liberal of Dems express a reluctance to spend the entire $1.1 billion surplus. So even with a high tide of spending bills, a great many will die in the budget process.

And despite dire warnings from the Rs, we won’t see any showboat projects like the Rail Runner or the Spaceport. We will see attention to roads and bridges, school buildings, salaries, and rainy day funds.

The real checks on spending will be the two budget committees and their strong-minded chairs. The Legislative Finance Committee has already done a lot of groundwork to help them all focus.

Top of mind this year is the court decision in Yazzie-Martinez vs. New Mexico, in which a district court judge ruled that the state is failing its children by under-funding public education. The state must report back in April, which means the governor and Legislature must act in this session.

In their proposed budgets, both branches substantially upped their education spending. While they differ in other areas, their education proposals are pretty similar.

This is personal for the chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, Rep. Patty Lundstrom. The Yazzie lawsuit originated in her district when Wilhelmina Yazzie, mother of three, grew frustrated with the scarcity of everything from textbooks to after-school programs in Gallup schools.

The landmark lawsuit opened the curtain on years of education on the cheap, and the judge found the state in violation of its Constitution.

One revelation during an HAFC hearing last week was the money wasted during the last eight-plus years. LFC staffers kept using the jargon “evidence-based” to emphasize the need to fund programs with a track record of working.

It seems the Public Education Department was pumping money into programs with no evidence of their effectiveness and not even checking to see if schools were spending the money as intended. Both the Yazzie ruling and the LFC have called for more oversight by PED.

Also, the school districts and charter schools were quite creative in manipulating the state’s funding formula to their own benefit. One bill, HB 5, ends that – until schools come up with new tricks.

So this session isn’t entirely about spending. There’s serious emphasis on being smarter about existing education spending.

Probably the biggest difference in the two budgets is the governor’s willingness to lift the $50 million cap on rebates to the film industry and pay off the $250 million backlog.

Lundstrom said she needs to see the numbers. “I’m not sure we’re ready to lift the cap,” she told me. It doesn’t help that the industry hasn’t shown any love for her district in McKinley and San Juan counties, despite the area’s dramatic scenery.

House Republican leaders Jim Townsend and Rod Montoya call the film rebate “corporate welfare.” That complaint didn’t fly eight years ago and still doesn’t. Media industries, as the sector is properly called, is a legitimate player in the state’s economy and one, I might add, that our young people stay to work for.

However, it’s worth looking at the incentive. What are other states doing? What can we reasonably sustain?

After eight years of cutting, of robbing Peter to pay Paul, the pent-up demand is such that even the penny-pinching Republicans would spend more on education and roads.

Regardless of how lawmakers divvy up dollars, you can count on hearing about it in the 2020 elections.

Sherry Robinson is a New Mexico News Services columnist. She can be reached at robinson@nmia.com .

Burkett Shaw
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