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House OKs early childhood education measure

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A proposal to tap more heavily into New Mexico’s largest permanent fund – generating about $150 million a year for early childhood programs – barely cleared the state House on Tuesday.

It squeaked by on a 36-33 vote, the bare minimum of “yes” votes needed for a constitutional amendment to advance out of the 70-member House.

The legislation now heads to the Senate, where similar proposals have repeatedly run into opposition over the years.

But Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Javier Martínez – Albuquerque Democrats who are sponsoring the measure – said they’re optimistic about the chances for passage in the Senate. They said they’re willing to consider changes to the legislation as a way to sway skeptics.

“We’re interested in getting this done and getting this done now,” Martinez said after the House vote.

Voter and congressional approval would also be required if the proposed constitutional amendment makes it through the Legislature.

House Joint Resolution 1 was adopted on a mostly party-line vote Tuesday, with all but two Democrats in favor and all Republicans opposed.

Democrats Bobby Gonzales and Candie Sweetser voted “no,” and Republican Sarah Maestas Barnes wasn’t present for the vote.

Maestas, Martinez and Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-White Rock, the third co-sponsor, pitched the proposed constitutional amendment as a cost-effective way to ensure children are ready to learn when they start kindergarten, in a state were 36 percent of the children live in poverty, the highest rate in the nation.

“We have generations of poverty and decades of dysfunction we must overcome,” Maestas said as the three-hour debate started.

Opponents, in turn, questioned whether New Mexico is prepared to spend the money wisely. They agreed that early childhood programs are worthwhile but said supporters haven’t offered enough details on how the money would be used in the years to come.

“We are being asked today to spend $1 billion, and we’re not getting a comprehensive plan,” said Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque.

Senate opposition

The debate now turns to the Senate, where Republicans and some Democrats have opposed the legislation. Just last year, in fact, a similar proposal died in the Senate Rules Committee by one vote – with two of the panel’s Democrats – Clemente Sanchez of Grants and Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces – joining Republicans to defeat it.

Papen is the Senate president pro tem.

Another powerful Senate Democrat, John Arthur Smith, chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee, has also opposed the measure. He said Tuesday that his position hasn’t changed.

Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Questa Democrat and vice chairman of the Finance Committee, said he and other members will take a close look at the legislation, paying particular attention to how it would affect the financial future of the permanent fund. He noted that there are other proposals to divert money from the fund.

Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat and member of the Finance Committee, said he would keep an open mind about the proposal. In general, he said, the state must find a stable way to fund the education system and reduce its dependence on oil and gas revenue.

Pros and cons

The legislation passed by the House on Tuesday would increase distributions from the Land Grant Permanent Fund by 1 percentage point, from 5 percent to 6 percent.

The extra money would go to school districts and tribes to provide services to children before they reach kindergarten. That could include home-visiting programs to help young parents and pre-K services to help children prepare for the start of school.

The extra money would be phased in over a few years, with the bulk of the funds supporting general public education in the first few years and later about 85 percent going to early childhood programs. Four years from now, for example, after the phase-in, early childhood programs would get an extra $150 million a year and other beneficiaries of the permanent fund – such as universities – would get $26 million, according to legislative estimates.

Supporters say early childhood programs have a proven record. Pre-kindergarten programs have resulted in academic gains sticking with children through at the least the fifth grade, according to nonpartisan analysts working for the Legislative Finance Committee.

Opponents said the improvements depend on carrying out effective programs, not just plowing more money into school districts.

“It’s not just about money,” Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences said. “It’s not that simple.”

Opponents also said the proposal would damage the health of the permanent fund, which already provides about $747 million a year for public schools, universities and other beneficiaries. Taking more money out now, they say, will slow the growth of the fund and – after about 26 years – actually mean less for schools and other beneficiaries than if the fund had been left alone at the 5 percent distribution rate.

Martinez, one of the sponsors, said New Mexico’s children need more help.

“There’s clearly something broken,” Martinez said.

Constitutional amendments don’t require approval of the governor.