Advocates of early childhood proposal vow to keep trying

Archbishop John Wester, center, joins Jessa Cowdrey, left, and Allen Sanchez, both with CHI St. Joseph\’s Children, in a candlelight vigil outside the Roundhouse on Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Years of disappointment haven’t dimmed his optimism.

Allen Sánchez – president of the nonprofit group CHI St. Joseph’s Children and executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops – isn’t giving up on the proposed constitutional amendment for early childhood programs, even as it’s set to die this year in the Senate Finance Committee, without a hearing.

The proposal will expire at noon today with the end of the legislative session, barring a last-minute surprise. And Sanchez and other supporters will have to start from scratch next year.

It took 10 years, he points out, for the Legislature to repeal the death penalty. The cockfighting ban took almost twice as long.

“It’s inevitable this happens,” Sanchez said Wednesday in an interview. “The fund is only going to get bigger, the statistics get worse, and we’re not going away.”

That optimism was no match this year for the powerful Senate Finance Committee, led by Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat who opposes tapping into the Land Grant Permanent Fund.

He and other skeptics have questioned the wisdom of drawing more money out of a fund that already provides hundreds of millions of dollars for the state budget each year. Critics say the increased distribution sought by proponents would slow the growth of the permanent fund and eventually provide less for the budget than if the fund were left alone.

And Smith made it clear that the chances of House Joint Resolution 1 passing his committee were never good.

“It hasn’t had the votes,” he said in an interview.

Smith also said proponents of the legislation “have been so ugly with elected officials in the past,” including, he said, criticism of a senator who hadn’t even voted on the measure.

The proposal would amend the state Constitution and increase annual distributions from the Land Grant Permanent Fund by 1 percentage point, from 5 percent to 6 percent. Approval of the U.S. Congress and New Mexico voters would be required.

The legislation would generate about $150 million a year that would go to school districts and tribes to provide services to children before they reach kindergarten. Another $26 million would go to other beneficiaries of the permanent fund, such as universities.

Supporters say it would provide money to expand early childhood services that have a proven record of improving student performance. Nonpartisan analysts working for the Legislative Finance Committee, for example, have said that pre-kindergarten programs have resulted in academic gains sticking with children through at the least the fifth grade.

The proposal is co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Javier Martínez of Albuquerque and Stephanie Garcia Richard of White Rock.

“Fully funding early childhood education in New Mexico is a moral imperative,” Maestas said Wednesday. “Given the benefits of these investments to the state over the course of the child’s lifetime, it is fiscally irresponsible not to do this.”

The House approved the proposal 36-33 earlier this session, with the bare minimum of “yes” votes needed for passage in the 70-member chamber.

But time is just about up for the proposal on the Senate side. Supporters have tried prayers, statistical arguments and deal-making to get the measure through, without success.

They aren’t giving up until “sine die” rings out at as the Legislature adjourns at noon.

“All it takes in this building is 15 minutes if they want to do something,” Sánchez said.

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