Congress OKs New Mexico's early childhood education measure, $1.5B for wildfire recovery - Albuquerque Journal

Congress OKs New Mexico’s early childhood education measure, $1.5B for wildfire recovery

The remains of a tree overlooking the Mora Valley where the Calf Canyon/Hermit Peak Fire burned through earlier this year. The burned landscape caused storm runoff from this area to damage to structures and acequias in the Holam area. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – An omnibus spending bill now heading to President Joe Biden’s desk would pump almost $1.5 billion into northern New Mexico’s wildfire recovery effort and grant final approval to the state’s early childhood education measure – part of a massive financial package designed to fund federal agencies.

The U.S. House passed the appropriations bill Friday, a day after Senate action.

The vote provided the final legislative authorization needed to allow New Mexico to tap more heavily into its permanent school fund, ending a decade-long campaign to pull more money out of the fund to pay for early childhood education.

State lawmakers adopted the measure in 2021, and voters approved the constitutional amendment in last month’s general election. Congressional authorization was the last step necessary.

“There is nothing I’ve worked on in my entire career that will have more impact than making this sustainable investment in early childhood education,” U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in a prepared statement Friday. “This is an opportunity to really change the trajectory of our state in a positive way.”

He and U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, also a Democrat, introduced federal legislation a year ago to grant congressional approval of the education measure, and the language was added this week to the omnibus bill.

The voter-approved plan will boost annual withdrawals out of the permanent school fund – an endowment of sorts – from 5% to 6.25%. It’s expected to generate an extra $236 million in the next fiscal year for early childhood education and public schools.

Approval from Congress was written into the constitutional amendment as a requirement before the full distribution could take effect.

Republican legislators at the Roundhouse opposed the measure, contending it would slow the growth of the permanent fund and eventually generate less annual revenue for state education than if the distribution had been left at 5%.

U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a Republican, voted against the legislation in 2018 when she served in the Legislature. She also opposed the omnibus bill Friday but didn’t immediately release a statement.

The spending bill, in any case, includes a host of other provisions with consequences for New Mexico, including approval of:

• About $1.45 billion to fund the claims office aimed at helping New Mexicans recover from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire – the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. It started as U.S. Forest Service burns that grew out of control.

Some of the new money is also intended to help Las Vegas, New Mexico, safeguard its access to clean drinking water, which has been threatened by flooding in the aftermath of the fire.

• A grab-bag of investments in New Mexico, ranging from spending at the national laboratories and military bases to $90 million for reconstruction of the To’Hajiilee Community School damaged by flooding.

• Renaming a post office in Belen after Dennis Chávez, the first Hispanic man elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate, where he represented New Mexico from 1935 to 1962.

“The provisions we secured will deliver a new school for our children, invest in quality education for our young people, support communities recovering from devastating wildfires, encourage sustainable water management across the West, and fund 15 key projects to address some of New Mexico’s biggest challenges,” Stansbury said in a written statement.

Democratic Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández of New Mexico called the bill “an investment in our future and in a more prosperous New Mexico.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said the legislation would “support New Mexico families, empower New Mexico’s recovery from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, invest in the cutting-edge research at Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, and support our military bases at White Sands Missile Range, and Cannon, Holloman and Kirtland Air Force Bases.”

The $1.7 trillion bill also includes language reforming the Electoral Count Act of 1887 following attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

New Mexico was among a handful of states in which Republicans signed a document intended to deliver their state’s electoral votes for President Donald Trump, even though he’d lost.

In New Mexico, Biden defeated Trump by 11 percentage points.

The New Mexico document included a caveat that it was submitted in case the GOP electors were later determined to be the duly qualified electors from the state.

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