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Tapping Land Grant Aid Eyed

Some Democratic leaders have resurrected a proposal to take more money out of the earnings of the state’s largest permanent fund for 10 years to finance early childhood programs.

The constitutional amendment started moving through the Legislature on Friday, when the Senate Rules Committee approved it 5-3.

Opponents said the Land Grant Permanent Fund shouldn’t be tapped any further to pay for government operations.

“I don’t view the permanent fund as something that is there for this generation. … I don’t think we should go after this fund,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, a Roswell Democrat who joined two Republicans in voting against the measure.

A coalition of labor, religious and education groups says investing in early childhood programs – while not raising taxes – is the best way to help kids flourish in school, graduate and become productive adults.

“This fund has been sitting there. … It’s time to move forward, and it’s time to try something that we haven’t tried,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, a sponsor of the measure.

Before it reached the full Senate, it would have to clear two more committees – including Senate Finance, where it died in 2011.

But the backers of Senate Joint Resolution 9 have broadened their strategy this year: They’ve introduced the same measure in the House as well, in the hope of maximizing its chances of passage.

Proposed changes to the constitution require voter approval; if it passed the Legislature, it would go on a statewide ballot.

The Land Grant Permanent Fund, which is currently worth about $10 billion, was established before statehood to support public educational institutions. It gets its income from oil and gas royalties and investment earnings.

Under a 2003 constitutional amendment, 5.5 percent of the fund’s average market value is being distributed annually; that’s slated to drop to 5 percent in 2016. The proposed constitutional change would increase the distribution to 7 percent as of the 2014 budget year, and keep it there through the 2023 budget year unless the fund’s average value dropped below $8 billion.

Supporters say investing in programs to educate parents, detect children’s developmental delays, and provide quality child care and pre-kindergarten programs will save the state money in the long run.
— This article appeared on page A4 of the Albuquerque Journal

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