Off and on: Richardson still doing his job

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By Ralph Damiani

It seems the campaign for president did not keep Gov. Richardson from doing his job in New Mexico.He recently announced his budget recommendation for next year and says he will ask for a $6 billion state budget that will provide a 6.4 percent spending increase next year to pay for public schools, higher education and general government operations.This follows the recommendations of the Legislative Finance Committee that recommended a $6 billion budget, with spending on public education and general government operations increasing by slightly more than 6 percent next year.Hmmm, seems pretty similar. In fact, the two budgets are almost identical – so much so that one has to wonder just how much time our would-be president actually spent on the budget.Well, you all know that answer to that.Anyway, Secretary of Finance and Administration Katherine Miller outlined the governor's spending recommendations as the Legislature convenes Tuesday for a 30-day session.The governor's budget proposal provides for a $362 million spending increase in the 2009 fiscal year, which starts next July.The Legislature says its budget is $365 million more.Education and health care account for most of the recommended growth in both budgets.Part of the budget would help implement the governor's plan for expanding health care coverage of all New Mexicans.Of course, the elephant in the room no one talks about is the fact that economists have lowered estimates of how much money will be available to lawmakers for budget increases next year or to offset tax cuts.But, on we go, full speed ahead.Here are some of the key provisions of the budget:• $2.6 billion for operations of public schools, the Public Education Department and other education programs. That’s a 4.8-percent increase in spending, or $119 million.Included is money for school districts to provide 2.25-percent salary increases for teachers and school workers.The LFC recommended a $124-million increase for public education, including 2-percent salary increases and the 0.75-percent retirement fund boost required by current law.• A 2-percent pay raise for state employees. The LFC recommended 2.4-percent pay increases for most state employees. The LFC also proposed money to help shore up the health care system for retired public employees and it considers that represents a 0.2-percent increase in the overall pay-and-benefit package for state and education workers.• About $883 million for the state's higher education network, an increase of 4.7 percent or $39 million. The governor recommended 2 percent pay increases for faculty and staff at colleges and universities.The LFC proposed a similar pay amount. The governor and the LFC say their total compensation package is higher because they include money for the 0.75 percent educational retirement system increase. Unlike the LFC, the governor's budget does not offset state aid for higher education by a certain amount in anticipation that colleges will raise the money through tuition increases. The LFC proposed a 1.5 percent or $3.2 million "tuition credit."• About $790 million in state money for Medicaid. That's an increase of about $83 million, or nearly 12 percent. Much of that is to cover the anticipated enrollment of more uninsured children and lower-income adults in the program, which provides medical care. Part of the increase is to offset a drop in the rate of federal matching funding.We wish more legislators would listen to our own Rep. Jeannette Wallace, who issued a warning. “We do have a downturn in the economy right now and we need to recognize that,” she said.Good advice that we suspect few will listen to.

E-mail Ralph at ralph@lamonitor.com.