Breakfast chat: Heinrich and Martinez talk early childhood education at Barela's - Albuquerque Journal

Breakfast chat: Heinrich and Martinez talk early childhood education at Barela’s

State House Speaker Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, second from left, and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., talk with former Albuquerque City Councilor Alan Armijo, left; former Deputy County Manager John Dantis, second from right; Anthony Santillanes, right, and others before having breakfast at Barelas Coffee House in Albuquerque on Friday (Eddie Moore / Albuquerque Journal)

A bowl of chicharrones between them, two of New Mexico’s top Democrats – U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and state House Speaker Javier Martínez — sat down in Barelas on Friday to catch up.

A breakfast meeting for politicos isn’t unusual.

But this time a Journal photographer and reporter tagged along, free to interrupt with the occasional question. Everyone paid for their own huevos rancheros.

Atop Martinez and Heinrich’s agenda: The new constitutional amendment that authorizes heftier withdrawals from the state’s permanent school fund to boost education spending.

They were eager to discuss how the proposal came to define what it means to be a Democrat, slowly gaining support as Martinez and others helped carry the measure year after year in the Roundhouse.

Heinrich was an early supporter. He helped push the debate to a close by backing left-leaning candidates who defeated some of the state Senate’s most senior — and skeptical — Democrats in the 2020 primary election.

Fair enough, but a reporter’s job is to poke.

I pointed out the last time Martinez lost an election. To Heinrich.

In 2003, Heinrich defeated Martinez, then a young college student, by 33 percentage points in a seven-way race for the City Council.

“A couple more weekends of door-knocking, I think I would have taken him,” Martinez joked.

Heinrich noted that some candidates — having faced each other in an election — never get over it. But he and Martinez never had that trouble.

They were soon working together to address traffic and other neighborhood concerns in southeast Albuquerque.

But Heinrich, now 51, seemed most eager Friday to talk about the state Legislature. He wanted to know about Martinez’s transition into a new role as speaker and the latest on plans for ensuring the education amendment money is spent effectively.

Heinrich also asked about the progress toward hiring a new director of the Legislative Finance Committee — the behind-the-scenes staffer who advises the Legislature. And he was familiar with the names of Democratic state lawmakers who have pursued energy legislation.

All of which is to say — whether he did it for my benefit or not — Heinrich certainly gave the impression of someone with a keen interest in Roundhouse politics and policy.

He is running for reelection to the U.S. Senate next year, but there’s been speculation he’s weighing a race for governor in 2026. Heinrich, for his part, has repeatedly said he’s focused on his Senate work.

I asked if he had any hesitation, as the state’s senior senator in Washington, about getting involved in legislative primary races in 2020 and local politics more generally.

“New Mexico,” he said, “is a state with enough structural challenges that if all levels of government aren’t working together and really trying to change some of the fundamentals, they’re not going to be able to do it. I just made a strategic decision that it was worth the risk.”

He and Martinez chatted at the Barelas Coffee House, stopping on their way in as customers greeted them. The hour-long conversation ranged from the boisterous cheering by Martinez at a Little League game — which drew an umpire’s warning — to what it means to be a Democrat.

“To me, early childhood should have always been central to the brand,” Heinrich said. “You get that wrong, everything afterward gets harder or sometimes impossible.”

Indeed, much of their conversation centered on the campaign to pull more money out of the permanent school fund to pay for expanding prekindergarten, home visiting and other early childhood education programs.

Increased early childhood spending has won bipartisan support at the Roundhouse. But the funding mechanism remains intensely opposed by Republican lawmakers.

The permanent school fund operates as an endowment of sorts, growing with oil and gas revenue and investment income.

In recent years, about 5% of the fund has been pulled out to support public schools. The constitutional amendment increases the withdrawals to 6.25%, generating an extra $240 million a year.

Republicans contend it’s too much. The higher rate, they point out, will slow the growth of the fund and – eventually – generate less annual income for the state than if it had been left alone at 5%, according to projections by legislative economists.

After breakfast, I reached out to House Minority Leader Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, for help explaining why his party opposed the constitutional amendment. He noted that education spending has shot up in recent years, even without the increased 1.25% distribution in place.

“Sadly, we’re taking money away from future generations when we don’t have to, we don’t need to,” Lane said.

He added: “It’s ironic that the senator who has been a large voice against oil and gas is advocating for a system that is dependent on the revenue for oil and gas.”

Heinrich and Martinez, of course, don’t see it that way. The permanent fund is projected to keep growing, they said, even with the higher percentage pulled out.

And they describe the expansion of early childhood programs as a key strategy for interrupting the cycle of poverty and boosting academic achievement. An LFC analysis in a peer-reviewed journal found pre-K participation is associated with improved reading and math proficiency at third, sixth and eighth grades, in addition to increased high school graduation rates.

Chicharrones aside, the breakfast made clear Heinrich is comfortable placing a big policy — and political — bet on early childhood education.

UpFront is a Journal news and opinion column. Dan McKay is a reporter in the state Capitol Bureau.

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