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Proposed boost to early education fund tabled

SANTA FE – A proposal to dramatically increase funding for early childhood programs by tapping the state’s $13 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund stalled Monday night in a key Senate committee.

The proposed constitutional amendment in Senate Joint Resolution 12, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, was tabled by the Senate Finance Committee on a 8-2 vote.

The proposal would increase the state’s annual distribution from the permanent fund by 1.5 percent to reach a total yearly withdrawal of 7 percent of the fund. It would generate an estimated $160 million per year for early childhood education programs, such as in-home visiting for first-time parents and expanded access to preschool programs.

Supporters say the expanded spending on children in their formative years, between birth and age 5, would have dramatic payoffs, including improved school performance and increased high school graduation rates, resulting in a better prepared New Mexico workforce.

“It seems to me that using this fund for early childhood education would be an economic benefit to the state of New Mexico because if we have healthy children, they succeed in school, they’re not incarcerated, they become good, honest productive citizens of our state,” Sanchez said.

But critics contend the increased distributions would threaten the long-term financial health of the Land Grant Permanent Fund, which already contributes hundreds of millions of dollars annually to state education programs.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, is among those with concerns about the future health of the permanent fund if it is tapped more heavily. Smith also has said new money flowing into still undeveloped programs means some money could slip through the cracks.

Smith noted Monday that existing state funding for early childhood programs has grown from $135 million in 2010 to $235 million today.

“I want to fund (early childhood programs) in a responsible fashion that gives us accountability where we can build capacity, rather than throwing dollars at it,” Smith told the bill sponsor during the Monday hearing.

Smith drew sharp criticism from advocates for the new spending after he opted against holding a hearing last year on a similar version of the bill, saying it lacked committee support.

The 8-2 vote to table the proposed constitutional amendment in committee Monday night – a vote that included four Democrats voting in opposition to the bill – seemed to underscore Smith’s earlier assessment of committee member support.

Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, who supported the bill along with fellow committee member Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, said she’d like to see the debate moved to the Senate floor.

“I think the entire Senate needs to hear it, needs to vote on it,” Rodriguez said Monday after the vote.

The committee tabling makes the proposal a long shot for passage in this year’s legislative session, which ends Thursday. But Sanchez, the sponsor, said he remained optimistic the bill isn’t dead.

“It might need some resuscitation, but we always work to resuscitate things when we feel as strongly as I do on this issue,” Sanchez said following the committee hearing.

A proposed amendment to the bill that would have reduced the withdrawals from the permanent fund failed to be adopted by the committee on a tie vote.