Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico early childhood programs would be consolidated under the roof of a new Cabinet-level state agency, under a bill that’s headed to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk for final approval.
The House resoundingly voted Saturday to approve the creation of an Early Childhood Education and Care Department, which would have oversight over home-visiting, child-care assistance and prekindergarten programs.
“I think this is probably the biggest thing New Mexico has done in a couple of decades to positively impact poverty,” Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, said in an interview after the House voted 47-8 to approve the measure.
Currently, more than 90,000 children take part in programs that are scattered across four different state agencies, including the Public Education Department and the Children, Youth and Families Department.
The bill approved Saturday would consolidate those programs in the new department that would be created in July, but not be fully functional until July 2020.
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office in January, is expected to sign the legislation into law in the coming days after pushing for its passage.
If she does, the governor would be able to appoint a Cabinet secretary to run the department. An assistant secretary mandated by the bill would also be hired to focus on providing services in Native American communities and working with tribal governments.
About half of New Mexico children are covered by Medicaid, which provides health insurance coverage to low-income families, and lawmakers have ramped up spending on early childhood programs in recent years in an attempt to break the state’s cycle of poverty.
Specifically, total state and federal spending on early childhood programs has jumped from $136.5 million in the 2012 budget year to $313.2 million in the current year.
But backers of the bill approved Saturday said the state would be better able to target those funds if the programs are housed within a single agency.
“This will eliminate that duplication of services,” Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said during the House floor debate. “It’s not going to cost us any more than what we’re already paying in multiple departments.”
But some House Republicans argued the measure could lead to more bureaucracy.
“We have lots of state government, considering the size of our state, and I think adding another state department will increase that even more,” said Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, who voted against the measure.
The state currently has 23 Cabinet-level departments and more than 40 administrative agencies.
While it’s unclear exactly where the new early childhood department might be physically located, the bill appropriates $1.25 million to help set up the department and transfer the necessary equipment from other agencies. Some of that money would also be used to establish a financial plan for the department.
On a practical level, backers say current programs would not be interrupted by the change. The delivery of pre-K services, for example, would still happen in private child-care centers and in schools.
The bill, which was also backed by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, initially struggled to gain traction at the Roundhouse during the 60-day session that ends Saturday, and was significantly amended in a Senate committee.
But those amendments were later stripped out of the legislation, and it picked up momentum even before winning decisive approval in the full Senate.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done legislatively,” Padilla told the Journal after Saturday’s vote, adding he had been working on the idea for the last nine years.