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Proposal: NM gets more land, funds education

Children from the Eastern Childhood Development Center in Albuquerque in March wait for a meeting with legislators to seek their support for early childhood education funding. State Land Commissioner Ray Powell is pitching the idea that the state acquire more acreage and use it to produce more revenue for education. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)

Children from the Eastern Childhood Development Center in Albuquerque in March wait for a meeting with legislators to seek their support for early childhood education funding. State Land Commissioner Ray Powell is pitching the idea that the state acquire more acreage and use it to produce more revenue for education. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

The ongoing dispute at the state Capitol over delving deeper into New Mexico’s piggy bank to fund early childhood programs has an added twist.

State Land Commissioner Ray Powell is floating the idea that the state acquire additional acreage from the federal government and use it to produce more revenue for education.

He’s touting it as an alternative to the hot-button proposal to take an additional $100-plus million a year from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to boost early childhood education efforts, an idea he opposes.

In other words, he argues, “Grow the pie, rather than slice it into smaller pieces.”

Sound simple? It’s not. And it may prove to be a “pie in the sky” proposal. But Powell insists it’s a big idea worth pursuing.

He’s been shopping his plan in advance of the January legislative session, when he hopes lawmakers will appropriate money to the State Land Office to further study and develop it.

With New Mexico languishing near the bottom in student achievement and child well-being, advocates have been pushing for the past three years to change the state Constitution to increase the amount of money that can be taken each year out of the Land Grant Permanent Fund. The extra money would be funneled to programs for kids in the first few years of life.

But advocates have bumped into opposition from those who say that increased distributions would be risky for the $12 billion permanent fund in the long term, curbing its growth and suppressing future earnings.

The state’s biggest permanent fund is the repository for leasing fees and royalties New Mexico gets from the 13 million acres of mineral resources and 9 million acres of surface that were granted to the state by Congress around the time of statehood a century ago.

The State Land Office leases those trust lands for commercial development, renewable energy, grazing, rights of way, and oil, gas and mineral extraction.

The state constitution currently allows 5.5 percent to be tapped from the fund each year. Last year, that yielded $577 million, with most of it going to public school districts and the rest to other public institutions.

Powell says the risk of eroding the permanent fund could be averted by looking in a different direction: toward the estimated 1 million acres of federal lands in New Mexico that the Bureau of Land Management has designated as “disposal lands” because they don’t fit the BLM’s mission.

POWELL: “Grow the pie rather than slice it ... ”

POWELL: “Grow the pie rather than slice it … ”

He wants New Mexico to ask the federal government to grant the state some of that land – it hasn’t been decided how much, or where – that could earn revenue from leases. Urban-area lands could be leased for commercial use and rural acreage on the eastern plains for solar arrays or wind farms, for example.

Under the plan, the revenue derived from the leases would go into a newly created separate fund, not the Land Grant Permanent Fund, for use on early childhood or other education-related programs.

It would require federal legislation to grant the land, and state legislation to create the educational initiatives fund and direct the revenue to it, according to the Land Office, which estimates the program could yield $50 million annually.

Advocates of the constitutional amendment say that getting more federal land is a fine idea, but that it wouldn’t provide a solution soon enough.

“If we try to get these lands, it will be years before there’s revenue from them. … We need money on the ground now,” said Allen Sanchez, CEO of St. Joseph Community Health and a leading spokesman for the amendment.

In a version passed by the House in March, the constitutional amendment would have effectively increased withdrawals from the current 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent, generating about $113 million annually for early childhood programs.

The constitutional amendment would have to be approved by the Legislature and then by voters in a statewide election. Attorney General Gary King said last year that taking more money out of the fund would also require congressional approval in the form of an amendment to the 1910 federal Enabling Act, which was one of the ways the federal land was transferred to New Mexico.

The Land Office says it hopes lawmakers would fund a feasibility study during the 2014 session; Powell hopes for $250,000. The earliest the Land Office could begin leasing new lands would be in early 2016.

Powell says the federal government talks about allocating billions more to the states for early childhood education, but another way is to give the state land for the same purpose – “the fishing rod, not just the fish, to sustain a long-term funding source.”

And if an outright grant is out of the question, the Land Office says there are a variety of other arrangements with the federal government by which the state could obtain acreage – buying it at a reduced price, for example, or getting the land in exchange for a reduced share of the royalties that the state now gets for production on federal lands.

But the first step is to figure out what disposal lands are available. BLM designates them by field office – there are seven in New Mexico – and the Land Office has been compiling that information.

“We’re in the process of cobbling together a map so we can visually see where they are and how much land is involved,” Powell said.

The BLM has several methods of disposing of land, including various types of sales; conveyances to local governments or qualified nonprofits for noncommercial uses; and land swaps with the state.

Just a few sales were done this year in New Mexico. They can typically take 12 to 18 months to complete because of required environmental analyses, site assessments, appraisals and public notifications, according to the BLM.

“The problem is, we don’t have a way to give away land, no matter how good the public benefit would be. We don’t have the authority,” said Donna Hummel, chief of communications for the BLM’s New Mexico office. That’s why federal legislation would be required.

The hurdles at the federal level – not the least of them Congress’ many problems – could be significant.

Sanchez says he and others approached staffers of former U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., a few years ago with just such an idea and were told it wouldn’t fly, in part because of the potential implications for the federal government’s dealings with other states.

“I haven’t seen anything change that makes that more doable,” Sanchez said.

“When you have a state like New Mexico that has as many challenges as we have, we need to think big,” said Deputy Land Commissioner Sunalei Stewart. “This is a proposal that could really make a big difference. But we’re not saying it would be easy.”

Meanwhile, the lobbying effort for the constitutional amendment has grown fiercer in advance of the January 2014 legislative session.

The Albuquerque-based Center for Civic Policy targeted Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming – who blocked a vote on the proposal in his powerful committee in the last session – and Senate Education Chairman John Sapien, D-Corrales, in radio spots and mailers. Sapien was also targeted on a billboard along Interstate 25 featuring an unhappy child.

Smith says that if the campaign is meant to intimidate him, it won’t work.

“I don’t flip-flop very often,” the lawmaker said.