Legislative roundup, Feb. 12, 2024

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Feb. 11—Days remaining in the session: 3

Budget headed to Senate floor: The 2024 legislative session took a big step closer to ending Sunday afternoon with Senate Finance Committee approval of a budget for the next fiscal year.

The committee voted unanimously to advance House Bill 2 to the Senate floor. If it passes there, it will have to head back to the House for a vote on the Senate's amendments before going to the governor's desk.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said the chamber on Monday will take up both the state budget and the tax bill, which also cleared committee Sunday.

The budget the panel approved is for about $10.22 billion, an increase of $653 million or 6.8% over the current fiscal year, said committee Chairman George Muñoz, D-Gallup. This is bigger than the $10.1 billion budget the Legislative Finance Committee recommended at the beginning of the session but smaller than Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's $10.5 billion budget proposal.

Muñoz rattled off a long list of areas in which the budget would increase spending, including $50 million for literacy initiatives, $50 million to support the state's smallest hospitals, increased Medicaid reimbursement rates for rural hospitals and providers, raises for the New Mexico State Police and more for police, corrections officers, volunteer firefighters and EMS workers.

But he said the increase is "probably the lowest spending that we've seen in the last three years." He warned the state has some major expenses looming in the coming years and needs to rein in its spending increases.

"We could see a day of reckoning a lot quicker than what you think if anything happens in the market," he said.

Muñoz also voiced some frustration with the state Environment Department, which had expressed some dissatisfaction with its budget that came out at Saturday's committee meeting.

"Anyone want to go back and adjust 184% out of the Environment Department?" Muñoz said, a reference to the size of the department's budget increase since the 2019 fiscal year. "I don't have a problem doing it."

Senator questions U.N. climate money: During Sunday's budget discussion, Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, asked whether money the Governor's Office is receiving from the United Nations Foundation to fund climate change policy is part of the state budget.

A Fox News Digital article from a week ago headlined "United Nations Foundation is quietly fueling climate policy, funding staff in Dem states" says the foundation sent $725,193 to New Mexico's Environment Department and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. It specifically mentions a $307,000 contract the department and the U.N. Foundation signed in September to support "a new senior climate policy adviser who will work directly with Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham through January 2026," the article says.

"This much money should also have been in the budget if we're going to do that," Sharer said.

Senate confirms four: The Senate Rules Committee held what is expected to be its last confirmation hearing of the year on Sunday.

The committee took up four appointments — W. Troy Weisler as head of the New Mexico State Police, Kari Armijo as head of the Health Care Authority Department, Victory Reyes as a student member of the University of New Mexico Board of Regents and Jamison Herrera as secretary of the Veterans' Services Department. All four made it out of committee unanimously. The full Senate confirmed all four unanimously later that afternoon.

Quote of the day: "I'm pretty sure it's not in the big 300-page budget. ... Oh, it's only 294. Let me not exaggerate." — Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, asking a question about United Nations Foundation funding for climate change initiatives in New Mexico.