Panel OKs permanent fund use for pre-K

SANTA FE – An effort to tap the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for new early childhood education programs cleared a second legislative hurdle late Monday.

The proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 3, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote.

The proposal would allow the state to increase its annual withdrawal from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to 6.5 percent, up from the 5.5 percent now being taken.

The additional 1 percent would generate about $113 million per year to fund early childhood education programs such as preschool classes and in-home visits for new parents.

The new funding would expire after 10 years to allow the Legislature to review whether it was effective.

If passed by the Legislature, the proposal would go to voters for approval in the November 2014 general election.

The legislation now heads to the Senate Finance Committee, where it probably faces longer odds.

The Finance Committee chairman, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, thinks raiding the fund would threaten its financial health. The measure could stall in Smith’s committee if he and its Republicans line up against it.

The State Investment Council has warned the new spending could tap too deeply into the Land Grant Permanent fund and force cuts to future funding of public education programs in New Mexico, which already receive money from the fund.

An updated analysis by the SIC, released after the Senate Rules Committee last week reduced the proposed distribution from 7 percent per year to 6.5 percent, said even the lowered distribution rate remains a threat to the long-term health of the $11.45 billion fund.

Sen. Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, said approving the increased distribution rate would set a precedent to use the permanent fund anytime a worthwhile educational program isn’t fully funded.

“I think once we go there and once we establish the precedent that voters can take this money away from future generations, we’ll never put the piggy back together,” Payne said.

Sanchez, the bill’s sponsor, said the expanded early childhood education programs are essential to improve the state’s education systems. He warned against what he called overly conservative projections of how the increased withdrawal would affect the fund.

“This fund is not our state’s future,” Sanchez said Monday. “The kids of this state are our state’s future.” — This article appeared on page A3 of the Albuquerque Journal

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