Budget still priority for legislative session

Hannah Grover
Lawmakers this session are confronting budget shortfalls, frustration over a weak economy and concerns about violent crime and school performance.

FARMINGTON —  A little less than two weeks into the state legislative session, the budget remains one of the central concerns. Lawmakers are working not only to balance the budget for this fiscal year but also to draft a budget for the next fiscal year.

As the House of Representatives and the Senate prepared to convene earlier this month, the state was facing a $70 million shortfall. Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, said the majority of the bills needed to balance this year's budget have been passed in the Senate.

Steve Neville

Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, said this year's legislative session has been unusual.

"Usually the budget's done by now, but we're still here bickering about it," she said.

She said the House of Representatives has only passed four bills related to the budget. She said on Friday that the House passed was House Bill 1, which sets the legislative budget that pays for travel expenses for House and Senate members, as well as salaries for their employees and other expenses.

The bill went back to the House from the Senate after the Senate rejected an amendment to the bill that Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, had proposed. The amendment would have cut the budget by more than $200,000.

Paul Bandy

"We’re reducing everybody else's budget," Bandy said.

HB 1 will now go to the governor without the amendment.

Among the efforts to balance the budget was Neville's Senate Bill 114, which addressed the current fiscal year's budget shortfall by drawing from school cash balances.

"I don't think any of our schools in San Juan County are dramatically hurt," Neville said of the bill.

While Neville does not think it will create a huge budget problem for local schools, he said districts like Aztec Municipal School District — which has a 17 percent cash reserve — would see reductions of about 2 percent in those reserves.

Sharon Clahchischilliage

He said a provision has been added to the bill to protect small schools or schools that do not have large cash reserves.

He said no school will go below 3 percent cash reserves as a result of SB 114. The bill passed in the Senate last week on a 39-2 vote. It passed in the House Monday on a 45-22 vote. Clahchischilliage, Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, and Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, voted against the bill.

"All of the San Juan County schools will be hurt because all of them have cash balances that exceed the 5 percent that they're supposed to have," Clahchischilliage said.  Schools with less than 5 percent cash balances would have protections under the bill.

Clahchischilliage said rural schools, especially schools that have large Native American student populations, tend to have large reserves because they rely on federal reimbursements. She said sometimes it takes the school districts multiple years to be reimbursed by the federal government, which is why they keep their reserves high.

"They are justified for having them," she said. "It's not just sitting there as extra cash."

Bill Sharer

As the Legislature convened, proposals to end or reduce so-called "hold harmless' payments for counties and cities had local leaders concerned. The payments, initially created to protect local governments from revenue losses related to exempting food and drug purchases from the gross receipts tax, are being phased out over a multi-year period. There has been talk of ending them immediately.

Bandy and Neville said they do not believe these payments will end.

"I don't see that changing without big broad tax reform," Bandy said.

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, has sponsored a tax reform bill. He could not immediately be reached for comment.

Other legislation

Neville sponsored a bill that, if passed, will help fund 911 call centers. Currently, cellphone and internet users do not pay into the fund that supports 911 call centers.

Rod Montoya

"This expands it so that everyone's paying the same amount," Neville said.

Neville and Sharer are also sponsoring legislation to increase penalties for reckless and drunken driving. Neville's senate bill would increase fines for reckless or distracted driving while Sharer's bill would increase penalties for driving while intoxicated.

Clahchischilliage has sponsored a bill to increase penalties for people in authority positions like teachers and coaches who engage in sexual conduct with students or youth who they mentor. She also sponsored a bill to expand the definition of voyeurism in light of several "peeping Tom" incidents that have occurred at schools. She said this is her third time introducing the voyeurism bill. While it has consistently passed the House, it has never passed the Senate.

James Strickler

Montoya has sponsored a bill to protect infants who were "born alive" during an abortion and a bill to ban partial-birth or late term abortions. On the Senate side, Sharer also sponsored a partial-birth and late term abortion ban. Montoya also sponsored a bill requiring parents of minors to be notified before individual undergoes an abortion.

Strickler could not be reached for comments, and Montoya did not immediately respond to requests for comments.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.