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Early childhood amendment faces skepticism

In this March 5 photo, Indiana Harvey, left, and Jaylyn Sanchez pick up toys before going inside. They are in a prekindergarten class at Atalaya Elementary School in Santa Fe.

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — A proposal to amend the state Constitution to tap more heavily into New Mexico’s largest permanent fund ran into bipartisan opposition Thursday in a critical Senate committee.

The legislation is still alive, but two Democratic senators suggested it will require revisions to have a chance at passage.

The proposal, House Joint Resolution 1, has passed the House five years in a row, including last month.

It would deliver an extra $170 million a year for early childhood education by boosting the annual distribution from the Land Grant Permanent Fund by 1 percentage point, from 5% to 6%.

But the proposal has died in the Senate repeatedly after passing the House, sometimes without a Senate Finance Committee hearing.

Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat and the new chairman of the committee, said the measure will get a hearing this weekend. His committee discussed the proposal Thursday, but didn’t vote.

Muñoz and Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said they won’t support the resolution as drafted. They said the K-12 education system — not just programs targeted at kids before kindergarten — needs an infusion of money to turn around New Mexico’s academic outcomes.

The state faces a 2018 court ruling that found New Mexico is violating the rights of at-risk students by failing to provide a sufficient education.

“I just don’t feel comfortable sending a proposal to the voters that leaves out a very important part of this equation,” Candelaria said.

Some senators have broached the idea of boosting the extra distribution to 1.25% and dedicating some of the money to K-12 education.

As it stands now, funding would go toward expanding pre-K and other services for children through age 5. Legislative analysts said the state’s pre-K programs have produced lasting academic gains for children who participate.

Muñoz made it clear that he was unhappy with the tactics some supporters of the legislation had employed against his predecessor as finance chairman, John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat who lost his reelection bid last year.

In 2013, for example, protesters handed Smith a “thank you” card for making New Mexico last in the nation for kids. Muñoz told supporters Thursday they would get more done “working with people, not trying to embarrass them and pull stunts.”

The co-sponsors, Reps. Javier Martinez and Antonio “Moe” Maestas, both Albuquerque Democrats, were polite in their presentation Thursday and said they are eager to answer senators’ questions.

“For much too long,” Martinez said, “we’ve underfunded education in general.”

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