January 30, 2023

From Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

A showdown is brewing between the executive branch and the legislature over two of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s legislative priorities: free meals for students and paying teachers’ health insurance premiums.

While the governor’s budget recommendation calls for funding for both initiatives, the spending plan presented by the Legislative Finance Committee does not include funding for either.

The chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee called the $100 million proposal to cover health insurance premiums for all school staff unsustainable.

“It’s not well scrutinized,” Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said after the committee examined the differences between the two spending plans.

“The governor needs to convince us that it’s sustainable and doesn’t create injustices within agencies that don’t pay for healthcare,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the governor did not respond late Monday for comment.

Simon Miller, an analyst with the Department of Treasury and Administration, said a typical Level One teacher would save, on average, about $4,000 a year if the state covered health insurance premiums.

“Under [the governor’s] plan, the state would cover the first $10,000 of everyone’s premium and then 60 percent of premium spending after $10,000,” he told lawmakers.

Muñoz noted that the governor’s proposal comes a year after the state increased teachers’ salaries. Public education accounts for about 45 percent of the state budget, a number that increases to 53 percent when higher education is included.

Both the governor and the Legislative Finance Committee are recommending another round of pay rises not just for educators, but for all government employees in the coming fiscal year. The governor’s proposal calls for a 4 percent increase, while the LFC recommended a 5 percent increase and targeted increases for hard-to-fill positions.

“We just made salaries, and how do you say, ‘Oh, we’re going to cover your health care costs and not the health care costs of other employees?’ ‘ Munoz said. “That’s a bigger debate.”

Another topic of discussion will be the governor’s proposal to offer free breakfast and lunch to students at the school.

The governor’s proposal includes $30 million in free school meals for students regardless of family income.

“Right now, too many kids are studying on an empty stomach,” she said during her state of the state address. “New Mexico literally delivers food for thought with this program.”

However, the LFC’s budget recommendation does not include funding for the governor’s proposal.

“There is a special assignment focused on making sure the $7.5 million meals we serve are of high quality,” Charles Sallee, the LFC’s associate director of budget, said during a meeting of the LFC’s finance committee Senate. “There has been some discussion in LFC about the ability of school districts to have universal school lunches and draw federal funds now. So we would try to support that for the counties as well as grants to be able to improve the quality of the free lunches.”

Senator Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, who will carry the legislation, said the problem needs to be ironed out.

“I know it’s very early days and we need to find out, but the recommended amount is $30 million,” he said. “We’ll have to get that under control as the process progresses.”

Public Education Undersecretary Kurt Steinhaus told lawmakers that while the budget recommendations varied, they sought to improve student achievement and the quality of teachers.

“Where you will see differences is how you get there,” he said. “The what, there is agreement. There is some disagreement as to how.”

In a subsequent interview, Steinhaus said that everyone wants New Mexico students to learn.

“I call it shifting the needle on performance,” he said. “We want them to be happy and healthy at school, so everyone agrees on the what. The details of how to get there, there are some other ideas which is good. This is a healthy debate. That is what democracy is all about.”

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