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Senate panel passes revised plan to tap permanent fund

SANTA FE – While the legislative deck might be stacked against them this year, backers of a renewed attempt to take more money out of a New Mexico permanent fund for early childhood programs said Friday that they are not giving up hope.

The permanent fund plan cleared its first Senate committee Friday, after proponents agreed to scale back the proposal and make it temporary.

“I’m confident we have made the necessary adjustments to the legislation … and that it is in better shape than it ever has been before,” Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, the measure’s sponsor, said after Friday’s vote.

Despite the 5-1 endorsement by the Senate Rules Committee, the permanent fund proposal could face troubled waters as it moves forward.

Attempts in recent years to approve the measure have stalled in the Senate Finance Committee and, even if approved by the full Senate, it could face long odds this year in the Republican-controlled House.

In addition, a spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez said Friday that the Republican governor continues to oppose the measure.

This year’s proposal is the latest attempt to tap the Land Grant Permanent Fund for an expansion in early childhood programs in New Mexico, such as preschool, child care and in-home visiting for first-time parents.

Many top-ranking Democrats support the legislation as a way to better prepare children to learn, but previous efforts to tap the fund have been blocked by a coalition of Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats, who describe it as an imprudent “raid” on the fund.

As with previous years’ versions, this year’s proposal would require a change to the state’s Constitution. As such, it would have to be approved by a majority of lawmakers and by statewide voters in the 2016 election to take effect.

Specifically, the measure approved Friday would earmark an additional 1 percent be taken out of the permanent fund, specifically for early childhood programs. The increase would bring the overall distribution rate to 6.5 percent, but would only be in effect for a 10-year period, under an amendment offered Friday by Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants.

The Land Grant Permanent Fund had a $14.4 billion balance as of the end of January. Distributions from the fund for public schools and other state programs are nearly $600 million for the current budget year, and are set to be $655.8 million for the fiscal year that starts in July.

The distribution levels would increase by between $150 million to $200 million under the legislation pending at the Roundhouse, Padilla said.