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Governor delivers personal pitch on pre-K funding

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham holds her granddaughter, Avery Stewart, 3, while addressing the Senate Education Committee at the Roundhouse on Wednesday. She joined Mark Shriver, center, president of Save the Children Action Network, and Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, to present a bill to fund early childhood education. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham – with a 3-year-old on her lap – made a personal appeal to state lawmakers Wednesday in favor of a proposal to tap into New Mexico’s largest permanent fund to help pay for an expansion of prekindergarten programs.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat and former state Cabinet secretary, testified as an expert witness before the Senate Education Committee, urging the members to keep alive the discussion over whether to withdraw more money from the Land Grand Permanent Fund.

A similar proposal was already blocked in a different Senate committee, but Lujan Grisham urged lawmakers to keep working.

Her 3-year-old granddaugther, Avery Stewart, sat on her lap for much of the 60-minute hearing, quietly drawing with markers.

“We can’t leave any more kids behind,” Lujan Grisham told senators.

She was testifying in favor of a bill aimed at increasing the amount of money withdrawn from the state’s $17.7 billion land grant fund. The state now distributes 5 percent from the fund each year – largely to fund public schools.

Repeated attempts to seek voter approval to boost the withdrawals by 1 percentage point – to 6 percent overall – have passed the House but failed in the Senate.

Lujan Grisham is now asking lawmakers to support a smaller amount – an increase of 0.5 percentage point. The increased distribution would remain in effect without a sunset clause, unless the value of the permanent fund fell below a certain level. The distribution would stop if the value fell below $12.5 billion.

But the bill she pitched is only part of the legislative package that would be needed to authorize the extra distribution.

A resolution to amend the state Constitution and put the issue to voters would also have to be passed, presumably in a future legislative session.

The proposed amendment would require voter approval in a statewide election. The next general election is scheduled in November 2020. The bill says the plan is contingent on approval by Congress.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, pushed back on Lujan Grisham’s idea, calling it wrong to propose the bill before a constitutional amendment has been approved by voters.

“This bill doesn’t really do anything, does it?” he asked during Wednesday’s hearing.

Lujan Grisham responded that the proposal is a vehicle to keep the discussion alive this session and perhaps win over members of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, where the bill will go next.

The legislation advanced out of the Senate Education Committee on a 6-3 party-line vote, with Democrats in favor. The legislation, Senate Bill 671, now heads to the Senate Finance Committee, potentially its last stop before consideration by the full Senate.

Lujan Grisham made the push for universal pre-K a theme of her gubernatorial campaign last year.

She said Wednesday’s proposal would help provide some of the funding necessary to make that happen. It would generate about $75 million a year for prekindergarten programs.

Lawmakers in recent years have been ramping up funding for pre-K and other early childhood education programs. But there’s been intense debate over where to find more money for such programs.

The push to expand pre-K comes as New Mexico faces a landmark court ruling last summer that found the state is violating the rights of some students by failing to provide a sufficient education.

Nonpartisan analysts working for the Legislature, meanwhile, say the state’s pre-K programs show promising results in preparing students to succeed in elementary school.

It’s rare but not unprecedented for governors to testify before legislative committees.

Former Gov. Susana Martinez testified before a Senate committee in 2011 – her first year in office – on a bill dealing with taking DNA samples from individuals arrested for certain felony offenses.

At Wednesday’s committee hearing, Lujan Grisham appeared alongside the sponsor of Senate Bill 671, Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, and Mark Shriver, CEO of Save the Children Action Network, a Washington, D.C.-based group.

Shriver is a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates and part of the Kennedy family. He quoted his uncle Robert F. Kennedy’s “ripple of hope” speech and urged New Mexico to embrace early childhood education as a way to lift the state’s kids out of poverty.

“I think this is going to be the most important decision you make in your legislative careers,” he said.

Shriver’s group, Save the Children Action Network, supported Lujan Grisham’s campaign last year with a $400,000 ad buy on broadcast TV and online.

Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this article.

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