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Legislature approves budget as adjournment nears

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The Legislature wrapped up work Wednesday on a must-do state budget proposal as the 30-day session neared an end.

Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn at noon Thursday.

The budget cleared its final legislative hurdle when it passed the House on a 58-8 vote. The spending plan goes to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

Enrique Knell, a spokesman for the governor, said Martinez "appreciates the willingness of legislators to find middle ground and believes this budget represents a good compromise."

Democratic Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela of Santa Fe, said, "There is something in this budget for everyone. This is an initiative that will move New Mexico forward and put us on a path to recovery as well as a path for economic success in New Mexico."

As the legislative session entered its final stretch, lawmakers picked up the pace to deal with their unfinished business.

Among the bills winning final approval and heading to the governor were measures to:

—Authorize $167 million to upgrade buildings at colleges and universities, improve senior citizen centers and pay for library acquisitions. Voters will be asked in November to approve property tax-backed bonds to finance the capital improvements.

—Lift the gross-receipts tax from parts and labor for maintaining aircraft. Supporters said that aircraft owners now use repair shops in other states with tax exemptions, including Colorado, Texas and Arizona.

—Require counties to contribute about $26 million a year to a program helping mostly rural hospitals provide health care to poor New Mexicans. Throughout the session, there has been a dispute over how much taxing authority to give counties to cover their share of the program. State and county revenue will be used to match federal dollars, potentially generating $150 million for health care to people unable to pay for medical services.

Still pending was a measure to provide for $233 million in state and local capital improvements, ranging from athletic fields in communities to an access road to the state's commercial spaceport. Those projects would be financed with proceeds from bonds backed by severance tax revenue. The measure only needs approval in the Senate. It was endorsed unanimously by the House late Wednesday.

The budget would increase state spending by 5 percent, or $293 million, next year. It provides $2.7 billion for public education — about a 6.6 percent increase over this year's spending. It was approved by the Senate on Tuesday.

Several House Republicans complained about the proposed spending increase and said the state's cash reserves were too low.

"I think five percent growth in the budget, in a year when our economy is struggling, may be a little bit excessive," said House GOP Leader Donald Bratton of Hobbs.

Democrats and the governor have been at odds for much of the session over education spending. But the Senate-approved budget provides more than $30 million for initiatives backed by Martinez.

About $7 million was allocated for programs to help with the recruitment and retention of teachers. Part of that money could be used for merit pay for educators — something the Martinez administration has long sought.

But any compensation initiatives would be subject to collective bargaining agreements if those are in place in local school districts. That protection has satisfied educational unions that merit pay or performance-based salary incentives won't be forced on local schools by the Republican governor.

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Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

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