Smaller proposal on early childhood advances in Senate

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SANTA FE — A proposal to tap into New Mexico’s largest permanent fund to expand early childhood programs may have competition.

A slimmed-down proposal that would target a smaller pot of money — the Severance Tax Permanent Fund — is advancing through the Senate.

It cleared the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday, the same panel that rejected the larger proposal just last year.

“This give us a shot at doing something a little different,” said Sen. John Sapien, a Corrales Democrat and the sponsor of the measure.

His proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 7, would generate about $39 million a year for early childhood programs. It would boost annual distributions from the Severance Tax Permanent Fund to 5.5 percent, up from 4.7 percent now.

The proposal still must clear the Senate Finance Committee before reaching the full Senate for consideration. It would also need approval from the House and by voters.

Sapien’s measure is a potential alternative to the larger proposal that narrowly won House approval this week. That proposal, House Joint Resolution 1, would tap into the Land Grant Permanent Fund and generate about $175 million a year, with most of the money going to early childhood programs, such as home-visiting services for new parents and pre-kindergarten.

The annual distribution from the land grant fund would climb 1 percentage point, from 5 percent to 6 percent, under the House measure.

The House proposal, however, has repeatedly run into opposition in the Senate, where skeptics have questioned whether it would damage the health of the Land Grant Permanent Fund by slowing its growth.

Sapien’s proposal and the House measure, however, aren’t mutually exclusive, given that they pull from different sources of money.

In any case, his proposed constitutional amendment won approval 6-4 in the Senate Rules Committee. The six “yes” votes came from Democrats, and three Republicans and one Democrat voted in opposition.

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces was the lone Democratic “no” vote. She also has opposed the House measure.

The House proposal won approval 36-33 on Tuesday and hasn’t yet been heard by a Senate committee. Its sponsors have expressed optimism that the measure will pass the Senate this year, and they say they’re willing to consider changes to win over skeptics.

Each proposal faces a time crunch. The 30-day legislative session ends Feb. 15.

The proposed constitutional amendments come as lawmakers look for ways to boost state funding for early childhood programs. 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.

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