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New Mexico early education proposal gets new push

Democrats and a coalition of 40 groups plan to push – again – for legislation that would tap into New Mexico’s permanent land fund to expand early childhood education.

The coalition wants the state to use a portion of the state’s $15 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund – which receives royalties from oil and natural gas production and other income from land given to the state by the federal government – to dramatically grow a program supporters say is needed to combat New Mexico’s high poverty rate.

Under the proposal, voters would decide whether New Mexico should tap the fund amid resistance from some fiscally conservative lawmakers. If endorsed by the Legislature, it would be placed on the November general election ballot.

The fund currently pays out hundreds of millions of dollars each year for education programs. Backers of the new plan want an additional $160 million a year to be taken from the fund.

Supporters say since lawmakers tried in 2010 to introduce a measure to allow voters to decide whether the state should dip into the fund, it has grown from $11 billion to $15 billion despite drops in oil and gas prices.

“Our children continue to enter kindergarten underprepared, and child well-being in New Mexico is one of the worst in the nation. We have been advocating for this legislation for five years,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque. “During this time, the fund has survived a stock market crash, drop in oil prices and has grown by $4 billion.”

State Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the powerful Legislative Finance Committee, said the proposal is “fiscally irresponsible” because it would take so much money from the permanent fund.

Smith said he didn’t believe any proposal had any chance of passing the New Mexico Senate, because other fiscally conservative lawmakers are uncomfortable with the cost.

“It has nothing to do with the merits of the program,” said Smith, D-Deming. “But the 1.5 percent they are asking would put us in a dangerous position.”