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Two legislative priorities pass committee

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SANTA FE – The Senate Judiciary Committee late Wednesday gave the go-ahead to two of the top legislative priorities for many Democrats this session – an increased minimum wage and more funding for early childhood education programs from the state’s largest permanent fund.

Both proposals are being considered as constitutional amendments. If adopted by the Legislature, the amendments would go to voters for ratification in the November general election. Gov. Susana Martinez would be circumvented in the process.

The proposed minimum wage increase, which would set the minimum wage at $8.30 starting in July 2015 and allow annual increases of up to 4 percent per year to keep up with inflation, was passed by the committee on a party-line, 6-3 vote with little debate.

That proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 13, sponsored by Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, now heads to the Senate floor for consideration.

The committee on Wednesday, on another party-line, 6-3 vote, also recommended a dramatic increase in state spending on early childhood education programs by tapping the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund.

Senate Joint Resolution 12, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, would amend the state constitution to annually withdraw an additional 1.5 percent from the $13 billion fund to benefit expanded early childhood education programs. Those programs include increased access to preschool and in-home visiting programs for first-time parents.

The new distribution would generate an estimated $160 million for early childhood education programs in the first year, according to legislative analysts.

The early childhood amendment now heads to the Senate Finance Committee, where a similar effort died last session after passing the House.

“There’s this huge disconnect to me to have these billions of dollars in our fund that our children will never see, and we’re poorer for it,” said Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque.

The additional 1.5 percent withdrawn from the fund for early childhood education programs would increase the state’s net yearly distribution from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to 7 percent. Critics, including Finance Committee Chairman Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, have said pulling that much from the fund would deter future growth and limit the fund’s ability to fund education programs in the future.

“You don’t want to take too much each year from this fund because as this funds grows in the 2020s and 2030s we’re going to spin a lot more money off for the General Fund,” said Sen. William Payne, R-Albuquerque.

Supporters dispute claims the new distributions could tap into the fund’s principal balance and limit future growth.

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