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Plan to tap permanent fund stalls in Senate committee

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, holding her grandaughter Avery Stewart, 3, addresses members of the Senate Finance Committee during a Friday hearing on a plan to boost early childhood spending. The committee did not ultimately vote on the bill. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham got a hearing Friday on a high-profile plan to increase New Mexico early childhood funding – but she didn’t get the votes.

The Democratic governor made a personal appeal to members of a key Senate committee to pass a proposal to take more money from the state’s largest permanent fund to expand prekindergarten and other similar programs.

But the Senate Finance Committee did not vote on the measure, likely signalling its death for the 60-day session that ends today.

Lujan Grisham, who testified to lawmakers with her 3-year old granddaughter, Avery, on her lap, said she won’t stop fighting for her goal of getting 80 percent of New Mexico’s 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in prekindergarten programs by 2024.

“If they’re thinking of other revenue streams. … I’m open to anything they’re willing to propose,” the governor told reporters after Friday’s hearing.

She added that her testimony was not intended to put political pressure on senators, saying, “It’s not about politics for me – it’s about meeting the needs of these families.”

Backers of the plan to take more money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund – valued at $17.7 billion – and spend it on home visiting, child care assistance and prekindergarten programs have been able to win approval in the House in recent years but have been stymied in the Senate.

Advocacy groups have in the past paid for billboards targeting moderate Senate Democrats, some of whom have joined Republicans in opposing the proposals. But those efforts don’t appear to have worked.

Some senators said Friday that they support the idea of increasing early childhood spending, but not using the permanent fund to accomplish that.

“The permanent fund that we’ve got is a working fund,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the Finance Committee’s chairman.

He later told the Journal the committee did not plan to vote on the bill before adjournment.

The permanent fund, which gets funding from certain oil and natural gas royalties and investment gains, is distributing more than $780 million this year for public schools and other designated beneficiaries.

Increasing the distribution rate from the fund by 0.5 percentage point, from 5 percent to 5.5 percent – as called for by the bill pushed by the governor – could generate an additional $75 million a year by 2021, which could be spent on prekindergarten programs statewide.

That proposal, Senate Bill 671, was brought forward by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, after a different measure – calling for a 1 percentage point increase in the distribution rate – was tabled by the Senate Rules Committee earlier this month.

Total New Mexico spending on child care assistance, home visiting, prekindergarten and other programs has gone from $136.5 million in 2012 to $313.2 million in the current budget year.

But the governor said only about one-quarter of 3- and 4-year-olds in the state – roughly 12,000 out of 50,000 – are enrolled in prekindergarten programs.

“We have not done a good job as a state of putting together an adequate early childhood system,” Lujan Grisahm said Friday.

She has already signed into law a separate bill creating an Early Childhood Education and Care Department in state government in an attempt to consolidate the various programs offered by the state.

But taking more out of the Land Grant Permanent Fund has proved to be a tougher political fight, as opponents have long expressed concern that doing so would undermine the fund’s long-term health and lead to smaller distributions in future years.

“When we take too much out of it, we can hurt the growth of the corpus,” Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, said during Friday’s hearing.

Lujan Grisham, who took office in January, has contested that assertion, calling on lawmakers to take a “responsible pinch” out of the fund.

She and other backers also argue that a cash infusion into programs benefiting the state’s youngest residents is needed now, given that New Mexico is grappling with chronically high poverty rates and a string of high-profile child abuse cases.

While the issue may be settled for this year’s session, Lujan Grisham made it clear she won’t let it fade away.

“I don’t want to close the door; I want the opportunity to keep making our case,” the governor said after Friday’s hearing.

Any bill to tap the permanent fund would still need the approval of statewide voters. The soonest it would likely appear on the ballot is during the next statewide general election, in November 2020.

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