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House OKs increase in land grant payouts

SANTA FE — The state House on Sunday approved a proposal to increase payouts from the Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood programs, while also voting to protect legislator emails from becoming public.

The House approved the proposed constitutional amendment for early childhood programs, House Joint Resolution 13, on a 37-32 vote after about three hours of debate.

If also approved by the Senate, the proposal would go to New Mexico voters in 2014. Voters would be asked to bump up funding for early childhood programs by increasing Land Grant Permanent Fund withdrawals to 6.5 percent annually from the 5.5 percent being taken now.

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

Republicans and other critics have said the increased distribution from the state’s $11.45 billion permanent fund would hurt the long-term health of the fund.

Supporters say the investment in early childhood programs would pay off in other ways, such as increased high school graduation rates and decreased incarceration rates.

The proposal now goes to the Senate for consideration. The bill is the House version of Senate Joint Resolution 3 which is pending in a Senate committee.

The House sponsor, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said the early childhood funding would be the state’s best hope at dramatically improving its education system by sending better prepared students to start kindergarten, regardless of their families’ socioeconomic status.

“We have to deal with the dysfunctions that generations of poverty bring. This is the great equalizer. It could be a game-changer for the future of our state,” Maestas said.

The proposal has drawn opposition from business groups, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, which cite analysis from the State Investment Council that the distribution would slow the growth of a fund that now contributes more than $500 million per year toward public education programs.

“This is permanent damage to our Land Grant Permanent Fund,” said Rep. James White, R-Albuquerque. “… You get a short-term gain, but it’s going to hurt you 10 years from now. Your distribution 10 years from now isn’t going to be what it is now.”

Lawmaker emails

Also on Sunday, the House narrowly approved a proposed legislative rule change intended to clarify protections for legislators that limit the public release of records, such as their emails, under the Inspection of Public Records Act.

The chamber voted 48-16 to send House Concurrent Resolution 1 to the Senate for consideration. A minimum of 47 votes were required for the proposed rule change to advance.

The bill’s sponsor, House Minority Leader Donald Bratton, R-Hobbs, said the rule would make clear that lawmakers act only as a group, and individual communications, such as emails, exchanged between lawmakers and their constituents would not be allowed for release.

Emails to and from government officials became part of an ongoing political feud between liberal and conservative interests during the 2012 election season.

If approved by the Senate, the rule change would require the Legislative Council Service to establish procedures on how lawmakers’ records are made public.

“I think if we don’t protect those communications, that we’re going to shut down access to the constituents that we’re here to serve, and make it very difficult for us to do our job in an effective manner,” Bratton said.

Supporters cited immunities outlined in the state constitution that allow lawmakers’ records to be confidential, a protection that does not apply to the state’s executive branch and elected officials representing city councils or county commissions.

“Is the Legislature different from other governments? The answer is yes. It’s the only place that has a privileges and immunities clause,” said House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, a co-sponsor of the rule change. “There is not an executive immunity in the constitution.”

Opponents, however, said the rule could go too far in restricting access to information about how state government works.

“It’s a mistake if we go down a path where we start putting up black curtains so the public can’t see what we’re doing,” said Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government is in opposition to the rule change. The open government group has expressed concern that the proposed rule change does not give specific details about how the new legislative rule affecting public records would be enforced.

In other major legislative action Sunday:

♦ The Senate passed legislation for $222 million in capital improvement projects funded through severance tax bonds. That bill now heads to the House.

♦ Legislation to prohibit employers from paying women less then their male counterparts is heading to Gov. Susana Martinez’s desk after the House voted to approve Senate changes to the bill.

♦ The Senate passed a bill intended to improve the solvency of the state’s Educational Retirement Board pension system by increasing members’ contributions into the fund and setting a minimum retirement age of 55.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal