Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – For years, it was one of the most fiercely debated measures at the Roundhouse.
But a proposed constitutional amendment to tap more heavily into New Mexico’s permanent school fund is drawing broad voter support ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
The ballot question was backed by 69% of likely voters in the latest Journal Poll – support that crosses party lines, age and regions of the state.
Just 15% of likely voters expressed opposition. The remainder were undecided, wouldn’t say or said it depends, according to the scientific survey by Research & Polling Inc.
The support comes after a decadelong push at the state Capitol to boost the annual distribution out of the permanent fund – an endowment of sorts – to pay for early childhood education, including prekindergarten and home-visit programs to help new parents.
Extra funding would also go toward K-12 education.
Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling, said the results show bipartisan support for the ballot measure that isn’t likely to narrow unless well-funded opposition emerges before Election Day.
“We know New Mexicans recognize that early childhood education is critical in a state like New Mexico, where we have generational challenges bringing New Mexico’s children up to speed,” Sanderoff said.
Democratic voters favoring the measure outnumbered opponents at a rate of 11 to one, he said, and Republican support outpaced opposition at a rate of two to one. The ratio was five-to-one among independent and minor party voters, according to the poll.
State economists say the proposed amendment could generate about $230 million a year in new revenue. Sixty percent of the funds would be dedicated to early childhood education and 40% for K-12 education.
The K-12 funding would be available for enhanced instruction for students at risk of failure, extending the school year and teacher pay.
At the Roundhouse, Republicans and Democrats alike have embraced early childhood education as an effective strategy for boosting academic achievement.
Even without the constitutional amendment, annual funding for early childhood programs has exploded from $179 million to $579 million over a 10-year period, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.
But there’s been intense debate – largely along party lines – over whether to turn more heavily to New Mexico’s land grant permanent fund to help further expand early childhood funding.
The state now pulls 5% out of the fund each year – a rolling average based on the fund’s value over five years – to spend on public schools and other beneficiaries. It will provide $1.3 billion this fiscal year.
The fund grows with investment income, and royalty revenue from oil and gas production on state lands. It’s one of the three or four largest sovereign wealth funds in the United States.
The proposed amendment would boost the annual distribution for the permanent school fund to 6.25%, which is the largest component of the land grant permanent fund.
Opponents of the increased withdrawals say it would eventually leave the state with smaller annual distributions because pulling more out of the fund now will slow its growth.
In about 20 years, for example, the fund would provide less revenue for annual state spending at the 6.25% level than if it had been left alone at 5%, according to a projection by legislative analysts last year.
Lawmakers in 2021 authorized putting the question on the ballot.
Supporters say the investment would be worth it, making more money available for programs that can interrupt the cycle of poverty, and improve the education and well-being of New Mexico’s children.
In the Journal Poll, the proposed amendment picked up support from at least 64% of likely voters in every region of the state: the Albuquerque metropolitan area, northwest and north-central New Mexico, Las Cruces and southwestern New Mexico, and the state’s east side.
It also had healthy support among likely voters, regardless of which gubernatorial candidate they support.
In the poll, the amendment was favored by 81% of likely voters supporting Democratic incumbent Michelle Lujan Grisham, 55% of the supporters of Republican Mark Ronchetti and 73% of supporters of Libertarian Karen Bedonie.
Strong support also showed up regardless of age, ethnicity, education level, party affiliation or political ideology.
“Democrats just tend to be more supportive of additional government monies going toward social programs than Republicans,” Sanderoff said, “but even a majority of Republicans support the proposed amendment.”
A similar proposal barely passed 19 years ago.
By just a fraction of a percentage point, the 2003 measure won approval in a special election to temporarily increase the distribution rate from the land grant permanent fund.
The revenue helped the state establish a three-tier minimum pay scale for teachers.
It also raised the annual distribution rate from 4.7% to 5.8%, but the rate was gradually reduced to the current 5% by 2017 under terms of the approved proposal.
The Journal Poll is based on a scientific, statewide sample of 518 voters who cast ballots in the 2018 and/or 2020 general election, and who said they are likely to vote in the upcoming election.
The poll was conducted from Aug. 19 through Aug. 25. The voter sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points. The margin of error grows for subsamples.
In the poll, respondents were asked: “Do you support or oppose the proposed constitutional amendment that would distribute more money from New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent School Fund to be used for early childhood education, teacher compensation and K-12 education programs?”
The poll question was modeled on the language that will appear on the ballot.
All interviews were conducted by live, professional interviewers, with multiple callbacks to households that did not initially answer the phone.
Both cellphone numbers (79%) and landlines (21%) of proven general election voters were used.