Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation Thursday creating a Cabinet-level department that will oversee and coordinate New Mexico’s push to expand prekindergarten and other early childhood programs.
The governor called it a historic moment after years of debate inside the Capitol. She signed Senate Bill 22 as her 3-year-old granddaughter sat in her lap, surrounded by parents, children, legislators and advocates.
“The No. 1 priority in this state has to got to be the opportunity, well-being and education of our children,” Lujan Grisham said.
The new Early Childhood Education and Care Department will handle a variety of services – including home-visiting programs for new parents, pre-K and child care – now spread across four other state agencies. The goal is to improve efficiency, accountability and coordination.
The legislation underwent a variety of changes as it bounced from one committee to another, but it ultimately won bipartisan support in each chamber of the Legislature. It passed the Senate 39-2 and the House 47-8.
Approval comes as New Mexico ramps up spending on early childhood programs, from about $137 million in the 2012 budget year to $313 million this year. Lawmakers have turned to the early childhood services as a critical component of state efforts to improve the public education system and break the cycle of poverty.
The bill was jointly sponsored by Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe.
“This is probably the biggest thing that New Mexico has done to eliminate and quash poverty in the state in decades,” Padilla said.
He also credited Lujan Grisham for helping secure passage of the legislation. In a formal executive message last month, she encouraged senators to pass the measure.
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office Jan. 1, said she expects the new job to attract candidates from across the country.
In addition to a Cabinet secretary, an assistant secretary will be hired to focus on providing services in Native American communities and working with tribal governments.
The legislation appropriates about $1.25 million to help establish the new department.
Opponents of the bill questioned whether a new department was necessary.