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Early childhood programs bill stalls

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A renewed attempt to divert more money from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund for early childhood programs will have to wait for another day – and maybe another year.

That’s because although the measure was presented Saturday in a key Senate panel, no vote was taken after more than half the panel’s members left the room.

“You know how the game goes,” Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, the Senate Rules Committee’s chairwoman, told members of the audience in explaining the panel would not be able to vote since only four of its 11 members were present for the debate.

However, the absent senators said they had been called to a Senate floor session, which had recently started, and disputed suggestions they intentionally skipped out on the measure.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said the situation was partly due to Lopez’s scheduling of the committee’s agenda. He also said the proposal would have been rejected if a vote had been taken.

It’s unclear whether the measure, House Joint Resolution 1, will be brought back up before the 30-day legislative session ends Thursday.

Lopez told reporters the Senate Rules Committee will likely hold only one or two more meetings before the session ends.

Backers have been pushing for about a decade to send a constitutional amendment to voters that, if approved, would increase the annual distribution rate from the Land Grant Permanent Fund and use the additional dollars to pay for home visiting and other early childhood programs.

The permanent fund, which is already set to distribute about $836 million in the coming budget year for public schools and other beneficiaries, was valued at $19.7 billion as of the start of last month.

The idea has won approval in the House – including a 44-25 vote during this year’s session – but has repeatedly stalled in the Senate, as moderate Democrats have joined Republicans to block it from advancing.

Three House committee chairs – Democrats Antonio “Moe” Maestas of Albuquerque, Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup and Javier Martinez of Albuquerque – teamed up to present the proposal during Saturday’s hearing.

They said the additional funding that the proposal would generate would not hurt the permanent fund’s long-term growth.

“New Mexico is in a crisis of epic proportions,” Martinez said, referring to high rates of poverty and other chronic issues. “We cannot turn a blind eye to what’s happening.”

This year’s proposal calls for the annual distribution rate from the permanent fund to go up by 1 percentage point – from 5% to 6% – into perpetuity, though backers said they would be open to adding a sunset provision.

The higher distribution rate would generate an estimated $180 million for early childhood programs during the 2022 budget year, the earliest it would likely be in place, according to a fiscal analysis of the legislation.

The analysis also concluded that while distributions would be higher initially under the plan, that would change by 2047 as the fund’s more rapid projected growth at the lower rate would eventually lead to larger distribution amounts.

Critics of the proposal have latched onto that, while also arguing there are better ways to fund early childhood programs.

In fact, lawmakers have already sent a separate early childhood funding bill to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for final approval that would use some of New Mexico’s budget surplus to pay for prekindergarten, home visiting and other programs.

That proposal, House Bill 83, is expected to be signed into law in the coming days.

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