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Early childhood fund bill sent to governor’s desk

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Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, shake hands after the Senate decisively approved a plan to create a new endowment fund for New Mexico early childhood programs. The two legislators are co-sponsors of the bill, which is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bill that would establish an early childhood trust fund – by setting aside some of New Mexico’s oil-fueled budget surplus – is headed to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk and could be signed into law in the coming days.

The Senate voted 37-1 Friday to approve the proposed endowment fund, one of Lujan Grisham’s marquee initiatives during this year’s 30-day legislative session.

“The trust fund is not the final step, but it is a monumental step forward in our effort to permanently transform educational and economic outcomes for kids and families all across New Mexico,” the Democratic governor said after Friday’s vote.

The measure, House Bill 83, 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.

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

“I think this is a smart way to approach growing funding for early childhood programs,” said Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque.

But the only senator to cast a “no” vote, Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, questioned why the money used to set up the fund isn’t being put to use right away.

“We’re shorting existing needs and existing priorities within our current budget,” Ortiz y Pino said.

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 transfer, annual distributions of at least $30 million would be made – or possibly more, depending on the fund’s growth.

While a House-approved budget bill would appropriate $300 million to set up the fund, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, a sponsor of the bill, said the Senate Finance Committee plans to bump up that funding level to $320 million – the initial target amount – when it makes amendments to the budget bill.

The proposed fund could play a role in Lujan Grisham’s goal of having “universal” prekindergarten in New Mexico – or at least 85% of 4-year-olds enrolled in private or public programs statewide.

New Mexico spending on early childhood programs has already increased rapidly in recent years, from about $148 million in 2016 to more than $500 million in the current fiscal year.

The bill was also sponsored by House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos, a Las Cruces Democrat.


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