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Bishops ‘double down’ on racism charges


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 last month. The vigil was in support of a proposed constitutional amendment to take more money from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund and use it for early childhood education. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s Catholic bishops aren’t backing away from accusations that racism played a role in the defeat of a proposed constitutional amendment for early childhood education – a proposal they supported.

And a Republican lawmaker, in turn, says he’s offended that anyone would attribute his opposition to the proposal as having something to do with race, noting that he’s Hispanic himself.

The intense back-and-forth between 33 Republican lawmakers and the three top officials of the Catholic Church covering all of New Mexico centers on a proposal that narrowly cleared the state House this year before dying in the Senate.

House Joint Resolution 1 called for tapping into New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for home visiting, pre-kindergarten services and other programs to help children arrive at school ready to learn.

The New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops was a leading voice in support of the proposal. And the group’s executive director, Allen Sánchez, told The Associated Press last month that there was an “element of racism” in the opposition to the proposal.

The 33 Republican lawmakers asked the bishops this week to confirm or disavow the comment – which they described as a “deliberately inflammatory” and false statement.

In a letter Tuesday, the bishops didn’t directly confirm the earlier comment, but they said the community must work together to “purge racism.”

In fact, they said Tuesday that much of the land that now provides hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for New Mexico each year was actually seized from Native Americans and that Spanish and Mexican claims to the land have also been denied.

This “structural racism took root long before our time,” Archbishop of Santa Fe John Wester and bishops Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces and James Wall of Gallup wrote.

It makes sense, then, to put more of that revenue to use helping impoverished children in New Mexico and address inequality, the bishops said.

“The status quo yields traumatic and inexcusable inequities, especially for young children of color,” they said. “No one individual has been accused of racism. Rather, we’ve highlighted deep flaws in a system in dire need of substantial reforms.”

Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, said he was disappointed in the bishops’ letter. There should be a civil debate about how to help New Mexico’s children, he said, and a recognition that all sides share that goal.

“I was, needless to say, disappointed that they would double down on the idea that this is institutional racism,” Larrañaga said.

He added that he’s Catholic himself and grew up poor.

House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said he hadn’t yet read the response. But he said the initial “racism” comment is offensive.

“I’m actually very offended – that actually being Hispanic – that anyone would say that because you’re not willing to steal from the permanent fund, it’s based on racism,” Montoya said in an interview. “I’m a Hispanic man married to Native American woman.”

He was one of the legislators who signed on to the GOP letter earlier this week. They described the comment as a “direct attack on the character” of legislators.

“The political debate is divisive enough in this country and this state without unwarranted accusations of racism being thrown about without any evidence,” the lawmakers said in the letter.

The proposed constitutional amendment would have gone to voters if it had cleared both chambers of the Legislature.

It would have increased distributions from the Land Grant Permanent Fund by 1 percentage point, from 5 percent to 6 percent.

Most of the money raised by the increase – perhaps roughly $150 million a year – would have gone to school districts and tribes to provide services to children before they reach kindergarten.

Supporters described it as a way to infuse money into programs that have a proven track record of boosting student achievement.

Opponents said the proposal would have damaged the financial health of a fund that already contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the state each year for education.

Trust lands generate revenue for the state through grazing fees, oil and gas royalties, and other activities.

The proposal passed the House 36-33, with opposition from two Democrats and 31 Republicans.

All the supporters were Democrats.

The proposal stalled in the Senate when the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, refused to hold a hearing on it, arguing that it didn’t have the votes to pass anyway.

Last month, Smith called Sanchez’s comments a “stretch of emotion.”

“I obviously know what racism is, but that’s not in my vocabulary,” Smith said, adding that his grandchildren are half-Hispanic. “It’s somewhat appalling that someone would resort to that.”