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Early childhood amendment clears first hurdle

SANTA FE – A plan to boost New Mexico’s spending on early childhood programs by diverting more money from the state’s largest permanent fund passed its first legislative hurdle Wednesday, but could face a rough road ahead.

The Senate Rules Committee approved the proposed constitutional amendment on a 5-4 party-line vote, with Republicans voting against the measure and Democrats in favor.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, the measure’s sponsor, said the increased flow out of the Land Grant Permanent Fund would be a “drop in the bucket” compared to what the state spends on health care and prisons.

“All we’re doing is letting the people of New Mexico vote on what they want to do with their money,” Sanchez told committee members.

Opponents of the measure, which has been stymied in the Legislature for the past three years, raised concern that the additional diversions from the $13 billion fund could stunt its future growth.

Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, told lawmakers she’s concerned about the proposal’s long-term fiscal impact, saying, “This is an issue of great concern.”

Currently, a rolling average of 5.5 percent of the land grant fund is distributed annually for designated beneficiaries, primarily public schools. For the current budget year, that amounts to $595.5 million, according to the State Investment Council.

Under the terms of this year’s proposal, that distribution rate would increase to 7 percent, with a certain amount earmarked for early childhood programs.

If approved by the Legislature during this year’s 30-day session, the amendment would go before state voters in November. Were voters to ratify the change, lawmakers would then take up the issue again during a future session to decide specifically how the additional permanent fund distributions would be spent.

That approach, said Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, puts lawmakers in the position of having to assume the increased spending would be effective without knowing details.

But Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat, said action must be taken since New Mexico is seeing an exodus of people and is languishing at the bottom of some national studies on childhood well-being.

“Our state is dying and every citizen here should be demanding change,” Candelaria said.

During Wednesday’s debate, Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, proposed tweaking the proposal in order to trim back – from 7 percent to 6 percent – how much money would be diverted from the permanent fund.

However, he agreed to withdraw the change after Sen. Michael Sanchez agreed to add it before the early childhood measure is presented in its next Senate committee.

The proposal still must gain approval in two more panels before advancing to the Senate floor. One of those panels is the Senate Finance Committee, whose chairman predicted earlier this week the measure will be voted down.