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Early childhood amendment clears committee

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From left, Allen Sanchez, CEO of CHI St. Joseph’s Children, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, speak in favor Friday of a proposed constitutional amendment to increase funding for early childhood programs. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A proposal to boost spending on early childhood programs – by tapping New Mexico’s largest permanent fund – began a familiar march through the state House on Friday.

In a committee hearing, supporters of the legislation, House Joint Resolution 1, described it as a prudent strategy that would help interrupt the cycle of poverty in one of the poorest states in the nation.

The proposal has repeatedly passed the state House in recent years but run aground in the Senate.

Opponents argued Friday that the measure would damage the long-term financial strength of the Land Grant Permanent Fund, endangering a stable source of revenue for public schools.

Advocates nonetheless said the growing size of the fund – now $19.7 billion – and the creation of a new state department to coordinate early childhood programs add extra weight to their argument.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat and a co-sponsor of the proposal, said New Mexico is taking so little out of the fund each year that it’s irresponsible. The fund would continue to grow at a healthy rate, he said, even if the annual distribution climbs from 5% to 6%, as proposed.

“We are hoarding cash amidst a crisis of our young people,” Maestas said Friday.

Opponents said they have new arguments on their side, too. They suggested that a different source of funding – through creation of a new early childhood trust fund – is a smarter strategy to expand spending on prekindergarten and similar programs.

The proposed trust fund is part of a budget package recommended by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and a bipartisan legislative committee.

Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said Friday that there are challenges beyond just money. New Mexico, she said, needs to build up a qualified workforce in early childhood services to handle the increased workload.

“I’m extremely concerned,” Dow said. “More money isn’t necessarily the answer.”

The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee voted 7-4 along party lines Friday to endorse the legislation. It must also clear the Education Committee before reaching the House floor.

Approval by the Senate and by voters in a statewide election would also be required.

“We have an opportunity to save a generation of New Mexico’s children from poverty, and we don’t have to raise a penny of taxes to do it,” Rep. Javier Martínez, an Albuquerque Democrat and a co-sponsor of the legislation, told his colleagues.


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