NM voters had their say. Now the education amendment is up to Congress - Albuquerque Journal

NM voters had their say. Now the education amendment is up to Congress

Candelaria Pacheco and her nephew, Mauricio Carmona, listen to U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich speak about the New Mexico Education Enhancement Act at the headquarters of OLÉ in Albuquerque on Monday. In English, the poster they hold says that early education teachers demand better salaries. Pacheco runs a day care in Albuquerque. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The debate over pulling more money out of New Mexico’s largest permanent fund is moving from one capitol to another.

It’s now up to Congress to authorize the constitutional amendment that won overwhelming voter approval in New Mexico last week.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and Rep. Melanie Stansbury called on their colleagues Thursday to consent quickly to the amendment and allow New Mexico to boost its annual withdrawals out of the permanent school fund.

The proceeds are expected to generate another $236 million next fiscal year for early childhood education and public schools.

In a short speech inside the chambers of the U.S. House, Stansbury, a Democrat and former state legislator, highlighted the amendment’s support from voters across New Mexico.

It won backing from a majority even in some conservative communities, such as Eddy and Otero counties, and about 70% of voters statewide cast ballots in favor.

“I urge every single member of this body to hear our voices – to hear the voices of New Mexicans and our children,” Stansbury said Thursday as she addressed the House. “New Mexicans want our kids to be able to access the resources they need.”

In a written statement, Heinrich, a Democrat, said he remains “committed to seeing this fight to the end at the federal level.”

Legislation he and Stansbury introduced in December has already cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee – with unanimous, bipartisan support – and is awaiting action by the full Senate.

The legislation, however, doesn’t necessarily have to advance as a standalone bill. It could be added to a broader legislative package – such as a budget bill – expected to win support from both chambers.

Supporters say they’re optimistic the language will pass one way or another by the end of December.

Also co-sponsoring New Mexico’s education measure are the other two Democrats in the state’s delegation – Sen. Ben Ray Luján and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández.

Heinrich said voter approval of the amendment “is truly an inflection point for the entire state of New Mexico, especially our children.”

The amendment reached Congress after legislators at the Roundhouse spent more than a decade debating and reshaping the proposal. It cleared both chambers of the Legislature in 2021 and went before voters in last week’s general election.

Lawmakers disagreed over whether congressional approval should be required.

But the final version of the amendment included language requiring congressional approval before the full distribution takes effect.

Under the amendment, New Mexico is set to boost the distribution out of the permanent school fund – an endowment of sorts – from 5% to 6.25% for two purposes, based on the five-year average value of the fund:

⋄ 60% of the additional money – expected to reach $142 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1 – would go toward early childhood education, or programs for kids too young for kindergarten.

That part of the amendment is contingent on congressional approval.

⋄ 40% of the money – projected to be $94 million – would go to K-12 public schools for enhanced instruction for students at risk of failure, extending the school year and teacher pay.

The amendment doesn’t specifically require congressional approval for the K-12 distribution, presumably because public schools are already a beneficiary of the permanent fund.

But the federal legislation, in any case, would authorize the entire amendment that went before New Mexico voters.

Stansbury, in a short floor speech Thursday, urged her colleagues to pass the language “without delay.”

Congressional approval, she said, was required “because of antiquated laws that were put on the books over a century ago.”

Federal legislation tied to New Mexico’s entry into statehood in 1912 established the permanent fund with certain conditions attached. The laws required land grants be held in trust for New Mexico schools and other institutions.

State Sen. Antonio “Moe” Maestas – an Albuquerque Democrat who co-sponsored the constitutional amendment as it worked its way through the Roundhouse – said the conditions imposed at statehood reflected New Mexico’s “paternalistic relationship” with the federal government and perhaps concern at the time about the state’s demographics.

He said he disagrees congressional approval is required but that federal legislation will make it clear regardless.

“When we go into session Jan. 17,” Maestas said, “there will be absolutely no question that we have the legal authority to do this.”

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