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Senate votes for new early childhood department

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico would establish a new Cabinet-level department to oversee its growing investment in prekindergarten and other programs for young children under legislation that passed the Senate on Saturday.

The proposal won approval 39-2 and now heads to the House for consideration, with less than two weeks left in the session.

Sen. Michael Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said the proposal would help New Mexico coordinate early childhood services now spread across four state departments.

“This will become a savings to the taxpayer by having a high-quality top-to-bottom leadership team,” Padilla said.

The proposal is backed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who encouraged senators to pass the measure in a formal executive message last month.

“New Mexico is more than ready to transform education and child welfare, and it must start at the beginning,” Lujan Grisham said Saturday. “Early childhood education is the foundation.”

Senate Bill 22 would establish the Early Childhood Education and Care Department. It would be the 23rd Cabinet-level position headed by a secretary in New Mexico’s executive branch of government.

Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, questioned whether another Cabinet secretary will really help.

“I’m just not sure adding another person to that big round table (in the Governor’s Office) actually does anything,” he said.

Sharer also suggested that a centralized system for early childhood services wouldn’t leave flexibility for the different needs in small communities and urban areas.

But in the end, he supported the proposal.

The only opposing votes came from Senate Majority Whip Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, and Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview.

Senate approval of the bill comes amid a growing consensus inside the Roundhouse that early childhood programs should be a priority as New Mexico tries to interrupt the cycle of poverty by helping families with young children.

The state has more than doubled its spending on early childhood programs over an eight-year period, to roughly $306 million this fiscal year.

Padilla said his proposal would provide accountability for the extra spending. One department, headed by a Cabinet secretary, would be responsible for state programs aimed at helping kids from birth to age 5.

“The outlook for children in New Mexico today is one of poverty,” Padilla said. “We believe this is one thing we can do to turn that tide.”

The bill drew support from a variety of groups, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.

Under the legislation, the governor would appoint a secretary of early childhood development and care. An assistant secretary would focus on providing services in Native American communities and working with tribal governments.

The department’s work would touch on home-visiting programs, child-care licensing, prekindergarten, prenatal services and education.

Padilla said the new department wouldn’t disrupt how services are now delivered, but would improve coordination and impose high standards.

The delivery of pre-K services, for example, would still happen in private child-care centers and in schools.

The bill includes funds for a $1.25 million appropriation to help set up the department.


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