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Seeking more early childhood funding

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The nearly 50 percent jump in New Mexico’s spending on early childhood programs over two years won’t pay to provide services to all those eligible or in need.

Allen Sanchez, CEO of St. Joseph Community Health, said a recent study commissioned by his organization tallied the still-unmet needs at $272 million a year.

The state Legislative Finance Committee had a much more conservative estimate: $91 million a year.

Sanchez said he and other advocates this year came the closest in three years of lobbying to winning legislative approval for a constitutional amendment to increase the state’s permanent fund distribution for early childhood programs by an additional $110 million a year.

The measure, which would still need voter approval, passed the House but died in the Senate Finance Committee when the committee’s chairman, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, opted against holding a hearing on the merits. He has said tapping the fund would be too financially risky.

Smith, who co-sponsored legislation to create full-day kindergarten in the late 1990s, said he’s sold on the idea of funding early childhood initiatives.

But he said the state can’t handle an immediate and massive infusion of funding because there aren’t enough providers and trained personnel to deliver the services.

“Our intent is to keep beefing it (the early childhood spending) up until we have that capacity,” he said. “Throwing money at it, there’s where you’re inviting more indiscretion and abuse across state government.”

State Land Commissioner Ray Powell, who is also an opponent of taking more from the permanent fund, says he’s making progress on an “out of the box” idea to generate an estimated $50 million a year for the permanent fund that could be earmarked for early childhood programs. The idea is to transfer federal Bureau of Land Management parcels to the state, which could earn money on the leases.

The transfer would take an act of Congress, but Powell said, “We’re actively pursuing it with the encouragement of some key legislators.”

Meanwhile, the LFC has urged the state Human Services Department to try to leverage federal Medicaid funds for increased home visiting services.

Considering that more than 70 percent of births in New Mexico are covered by Medicaid, the state could work with federal officials to offer medical-based intensive home visiting services to first-time, at-risk mothers, LFC staff has suggested.

At least 15 other states are using Medicaid funds to pay for various aspects of home visiting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But HSD Secretary Sidonie Squier has criticized the idea and Gov. Susana Martinez line-item vetoed $500,000 out of the state budget bill this year for such a program.

“There are legitimate concerns about what aspects of home visiting could be deemed medically necessary (which is a requirement for expenditure of Medicaid dollars) and what the impact of lost flexibility might be for New Mexico’s home visiting programs once federal funding is involved,” said HSD spokesman Matt Kennicott.

The administration also contends the timing is wrong, because the state Medicaid program is about to expand.

Sanchez, of St. Joseph Community Health, said advocates will be back lobbying the Legislature in January for the constitutional amendment.

“We will be here a long time fighting this. Hey, repealing the death penalty took us how long? Banning cockfighting took 18 years. Our children are far more important than the roosters.”


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