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House passes early childhood trust fund bill

Two bills pending at the Legislature seek to create a New Mexico early childhood endowment fund to help pay for pre-kindergarten, home visiting and other programs. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The House on Monday endorsed a proposal to use some of New Mexico’s budget windfall to set up an early childhood trust fund, less than one week after the Senate passed a similar plan.

The 51-14 vote to pass the plan, House Bill 83, came after three hours of debate that featured back-and-forth arguments about state government’s role in child rearing.

“It is supposed to be the parents and the family unit that love the child and take care of the child,” Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said during Monday’s debate.

But Democrats countered that prekindergarten and other programs can help parents, not replace them.

“It would be nice if Mom could stay home all day, but that’s not the reality in our economic world,” said Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque.

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

The first-term Democratic governor has called for $320 million to be set aside for the trust fund, although a House-approved budget bill would appropriate a slightly smaller amount, $300 million.

Under the bill, $20 million would be transferred from the trust fund to the state’s new 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.

Backers of the plan say an endowment fund for early childhood programs could eventually become a major funding source for home visiting, prekindergarten and child care assistance.

The bill’s sponsor, House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, pointed out that more than $1 billion has already been funneled into a rainy day fund established by the Legislature in 2017 to set money aside for future cash-lean years.

“If we can start generating that kind of money, just imagine what we can do for early childhood,” Gallegos told the Journal after Monday’s vote.

The two bills – House Bill 83 and Senate Bill 3 – are identical measures. They are both co-sponsored by Gallegos and Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming.

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