SANTA FE – Opponents of a proposal to earmark money from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund for early childhood programs are bristling at a top advocate’s claim that racism played a role in the measure’s defeat during this year’s 30-day legislative session.
Allen Sánchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, told The Associated Press during a candlelight vigil last week outside the Roundhouse that there was an “element of racism” in the opposition to this year’s proposal.
He expanded on the comments Tuesday, saying he was not accusing any individuals of racist behavior but was merely raising an uncomfortable truth.
“What we’re talking about is institutional and systemic racism,” Sánchez told the Journal. “When you look at disparities between minority children and other children, there’s been a wide gap.”
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, where the proposal ended up languishing in this year’s session, called Sanchez’s comments a “stretch of emotion.”
Smith also pointed out that his southwestern New Mexico district has high poverty rates. Luna County, for instance, had the state’s highest rate of Medicaid enrollment as of December, according to the state Department of Health.
“I obviously know what racism is, but that’s not in my vocabulary,” Smith told the Journal, adding that his grandchildren are half-Hispanic. “It’s somewhat appalling that someone would resort to that.”
Advocates have pushed for nearly a decade to take more money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund for home visiting, pre-kindergarten and other early childhood programs, arguing that doing so would help break the state’s cycle of poverty.
New Mexico has the nation’s highest rate of children under age 5 living in poverty – 36.2 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released last fall.
But opponents have questioned the logistics of such a cash infusion and argued that distributions from the $17 billion fund should be kept at their current level to ensure there is a sufficient amount of money left for future generations.
They also strongly deny undertones of racism in the debate.
Sen. Clemente “Meme” Sanchez, D-Grants, said Tuesday the tactics of Allen Sánchez, who is also president of the nonprofit group CHI St. Joseph’s Children, have not worked at the Roundhouse.
“Bottom line, it has nothing to do with racism,” Sen. Sanchez said in an interview.
Paul Gessing, president of the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Foundation, called the remarks akin to “throwing a hand grenade into a room.”
“I think it’s outrageous to say it’s based on racism,” said Gessing, who is Catholic. “It’s disturbing when I see an institution I have great affinity for … being politicized.”
He pointed out that state spending on early childhood programs has already increased steadily in recent years and said his concern with the proposed legislation largely hinges on the effectiveness of pre-kindergarten.
However, Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, one of the proposal’s sponsors, said Tuesday that institutional racism is “very much a reality” and affects state income levels and educational achievement measures.
“When nearly 8 out of 10 youth in New Mexico are children of color, and when those children are struggling as badly as they are in every social indicator, and when we refuse to invest from New Mexico’s largest fund in interventions that are proven to work, we are upholding a system that is yielding very inequitable results among children of color,” Martinez told the Journal.
A 2012 report by the state Public Education Department said that Hispanic students accounted for 82 percent of the total number of students enrolled in pre-kindergarten statewide.
Meanwhile, this year’s proposal, House Joint Resolution 1, called for an increased distribution rate of 1 percentage point – from 5 percent to 6 percent, based on a rolling average – from the permanent fund. That would have generated about $150 million for school districts and tribes to provide services to children before they reach kindergarten. Another $26 million would have gone to other beneficiaries of the permanent fund, such as universities.
The measure, which would have also had to be approved by statewide voters in November, passed the House 36-33 on Feb. 6 and then cleared its first assigned Senate committee three days later.
But it died without a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee, with Smith saying the proposal didn’t have the votes to advance to the Senate floor. The 30-day session ended Thursday.