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Senate backs trust fund for early childhood efforts

A plan to establish a New Mexico early childhood endowment fund is headed to the state House, after being approved Wednesday by the Senate via a 40-0 vote. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A plan to create a New Mexico early childhood trust fund that would generate millions of dollars annually for prekindergarten and other programs is one step closer to taking effect, after a 40-0 vote Wednesday in the state Senate.

The proposed endowment fund, one of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s top initiatives during the ongoing 30-day legislative session, would get startup funding from an oil-fueled budget surplus.

The first-term Democratic governor has called for $320 million to be set aside for the trust fund, though a budget bill awaiting approval in the House would appropriate a slightly smaller amount – of $300 million.

“The Early Childhood Trust Fund is a monumental step forward in our effort to permanently transform educational and economic outcomes for kids and families all across New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “It is not the final step, but it is an essential step, and I am immensely gratified by the support our proposal has earned through the legislative process so far.”

The measure approved Wednesday, Senate Bill 3, calls for a certain amount of energy-related tax collections to be diverted in years when total state cash reserves exceed 25% of spending levels.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, a sponsor of the bill and an influential budget voice at the Roundhouse, said he’s hopeful the fund would grow over the next several years to $1 billion or larger.

Its annual distributions would be used to supplement other funding sources for early childhood programs, including federal money and other state dollars, he said.

“We’re hoping to establish a stable long-term plan that takes out some of the (budgetary) hills and valleys,” Smith said.

New Mexico has rapidly increased spending on early childhood programs in recent years – total state and federal dollars are roughly $550 million this year – and lawmakers last year approved a new Cabinet-level agency, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

But some lawmakers have said more needs to be done and have pushed for more money to be taken from the $19.7 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund for prekindergarten, home visiting, child care assistance and other early childhood programs.

That approach has stalled repeatedly in the Senate, however, and the Lujan Grisham administration last summer floated the idea of creating a new trust fund as a way of breaking the political stalemate.

Specifically, Lujan Grisham has said she is open to various different approaches to reach her goal of having “universal” prekindergarten in New Mexico – or at least 85% of 4-year-olds enrolled in private or public programs statewide.

Under the terms of the bill, $20 million would be transferred from the trust fund to the Early Childhood Education and Care Department in July 2021.

After that initial distribution, annual transfers of at least $30 million would be made – or possibly more depending on the fund’s overall value.

The bill now advances to the House, where a similar bill co-sponsored by House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, and Smith has already cleared one committee.

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