Educators rally at Capitol against budget cuts

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By Barry Massey

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — On the eve of a new legislative session, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and educational groups were on a collision course over budget cuts and tax increases.

More than 300 educators, parents and children rallied at the Capitol on Monday against budget proposals by the governor and a legislative committee to reduce spending on schools and colleges. They called for tax increases to provide additional money for public education.

The Legislature convenes Tuesday for a 60-day session that will be dominated by financial issues because the state faces a budget shortfall of up to $400 million next year.

"Our lawmakers must do what it takes to raise revenues instead of cutting education no matter how politically uncomfortable it is ... because our children are worth it," Christine Trujillo, president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico, said at the rally.

She and others suggested raising taxes on liquor, upper-income New Mexicans or large corporations.

As rally participants cheered the calls for tax increases, Martinez was in Albuquerque vowing to oppose higher taxes to balance the budget.

"Instead of digging deeper into the pockets of New Mexico families and small businesses, what we have to do is change how the state spends money," Martinez said at a news conference. "We are not undertaxed. The state government overspends."

Public schools account for the largest share of the state budget — about $2.4 billion this year — even though the state has cut school spending by about 7 percent since the 2009 fiscal year. Lawmakers avoided deeper cuts by using nearly $300 million in temporary federal economic stimulus money to replace aid for school operations.

Stephanie DeBellis, a kindergarten teacher in Albuquerque, said her class sizes have increased because of budget cuts.

"Parents, children and school employees have given and given to this state to shore up the budget ... in the name of shared sacrifice, but today that is no longer acceptable. We have cut to the bone," she said at the rally.

The opening day of the legislative session will decide a leadership race in the House. Speaker Ben Lujan, a Santa Fe Democrat, faces a challenge from Las Cruces Democrat Joseph Cervantes.

The governor also will deliver her first State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate.

Cervantes is trying to assemble a coalition of Republicans and Democrats to oust Lujan, who has served as speaker for a decade.

Republicans picked up eight seats in the general election, narrowing the Democratic advantage in the House to 37-33.

Lujan and Cervantes said the leadership race was close.

Cervantes predicted that a majority of Republicans would support a change in the House leadership, but said he had not agreed to any power-sharing arrangement with Republicans if he's elected speaker. No Republican, he said, would be named as a committee chairman.

"I am a Democrat. I am proud to be a Democrat. I've made very clear to my Republican colleagues that I am going to try and advance a ... Democratic Party agenda but I would like to do so with a new commitment to ethics, a new commitment to openness and transparency," said Cervantes.

Tea party activists urged House Republicans not to back a Democrat for the speakership.