NM Senate panel OKs measure for teacher raises

Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico teachers and some administrators at various levels would see minimum salaries increase under a pared-down proposal that cleared a Senate committee Wednesday despite objections about the push being an unfunded mandate.

The Senate Education Committee advanced the measure following a debate that centered on evaporating revenue projections for the next fiscal year.

Legislative finance leaders have warned lawmakers that they expect to have $200 million less in new revenue to work with than initially expected as they craft a $6 billion spending plan for the state.

That means many of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s initiatives, including raises for teachers and the expansion of other education programs, could end up being shelved.

The initial proposal for boosting base pay for level one, two and three teachers and some administrators had called for phasing in increases over four years at an estimated cost of more than $150 million.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, acknowledged the state’s budget problems and amended the measure to cover just one year at a cost of nearly $7 million.

“We’ve got to start making some inroads in teacher pay,” Stewart argued. “It is affecting our ability to recruit teachers. The effect of this bill is to recruit and retain teachers.”

Under the amended proposal, there’s no appropriation for making the new minimum salaries a reality. However, supporters were hopeful some money can be found during the upcoming budget negotiations.

Stewart argued that the minimums should be adopted into state statute rather than being left to the whims of the governor, lawmakers and school districts each year.

Last year, for example, the Legislature approved the governor’s request to increase starting salaries for first-time teachers, but she vetoed language that would have increased base pay for higher-tier teachers and administrators.

Even though the money was approved for new teachers, some lawmakers acknowledged that rural districts — which often have smaller classes — don’t always follow the salary minimums.

Rep. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said individual districts should decide how to spend that money. He used Rio Rancho and Hobbs as examples, saying neither district has any discretionary funds right now.

“I’m fine with putting more money into the budget … but I won’t support dictating to the districts how it’s spent,” he said.