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Early-childhood bill advances

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Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, talks Monday in the House Education Committee about his proposal to tap into the Land Grant Permanent Fund to expand early childhood services. At left are Jessa Cowdrey of CHI St. Joseph’s Children and bill co-sponsor Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – A proposal to tap into New Mexico’s largest permanent fund – mostly to expand early childhood services – is off to a quick a quick start this year in the state House.

But it still faces skepticism from senators who have blocked similar legislation in the past.

Supporters, in any case, say they’re feeling optimistic this year – the eighth year they’ve sought to amend the New Mexico Constitution to increase distributions from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education.

Their proposal, House Joint Resolution 1, cleared the House Education Committee on a 7-6 party-line vote Monday and now heads to the Judiciary Committee, potentially its last stop before reaching the House floor.

State Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Javier Martínez, both Albuquerque Democrats and co-sponsors, say early childhood services are a key to interrupting the generational cycles of poverty, trauma and other challenges that harm New Mexico’s children.

“There is no silver bullet,” said Stephanie Garcia Richard, a White Rock Democrat and the third co-sponsor of the resolution. But “this is as close to one as we can get, because we know the return on investment.”

Republicans – and some conservative Democrats – have repeatedly opposed the proposal. They say it would damage the financial health of a fund that already provides hundreds of millions of dollars for schools and other beneficiaries each year.

The legislation would increase distributions from the Land Grant Permanent Fund by 1 percentage point, from 5 percent to 6 percent. If it cleared the Legislature, the proposed constitutional amendment would also have to win approval from voters and Congress.

Charles Wollmann, a spokesman for the State Investment Council, told lawmakers that it’s a “simple matter of math” that the measure would eventually leave New Mexico with less funding for schools and other beneficiaries of the permanent fund. The state would receive extra annual funding for roughly 25 years, he said, but after that, the state would actually get less than if it had left the fund alone at the 5 percent rate – because overall growth of the fund would have been slowed.

“It’s the tortoise and the hare,” Wollmann said.

Supporters, in turn, said New Mexico’s high rates of child abuse and other trauma affect the brain development of children. But early childhood services – such as home visiting programs for new parents and pre-kindergarten services for young children – have demonstrated the ability to help kids arrive at school ready to learn.

“When a child starts school behind, they stay behind,” said Abuko Estrada of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

A similar proposal passed the House last year but died by one vote in the Senate Rules Committee.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, a Grants Democrat who voted to block the measure last year, said his position hasn’t changed, partly because supporters haven’t presented a detailed plan ensuring the money will be spent effectively.

“I’ve always said, ‘Where’s the plan?’ ” he said in an interview.

The measure would be phased in but eventually provide $150 million a year for early childhood services and $26 million for other beneficiaries, such as universities.

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