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Early childhood proposal clears first House committee

SANTA FE – A House committee on Monday endorsed a proposal to boost funding for education – especially early childhood education – by diverting more money from New Mexico’s land grant permanent fund.

But the proposed constitutional amendment still has a long way to go.

It must clear two more House committees before reaching the House floor, and then it would go to the Senate, where similar efforts have died in recent years.

If approved by the Legislature, the measure would go on the 2018 general-election ballot, bypassing Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican.

Monday’s debate fell along party lines – Democrats in favor – and the House Education Committee supported the proposal on a 7-6 vote.

“It’s the best investment New Mexico can make,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

He and the other co-sponsor, Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said early childhood education is one of the most effective ways to help children in poverty. It’s cheaper to make sure they enter school ready to learn rather than catch up later, they said.

But much of Monday’s debate focused on whether the proposal would eat into the principal of the $15 billion land grant permanent fund. Opponents said economic conditions – volatile oil and gas prices, which contribute to the fund – mean it may not be sustainable to increase distributions, no matter how worthy the new services would be.

Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, suggested renaming it the land grant “temporary” fund if the proposal moves forward.

Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, questioned whether the money would be put to good use.

“There’s no accountability, to speak of, in this,” he said.

Maestas said he doesn’t believe the increased distribution would harm the principal of the fund. The state now uses about 5 percent of the fund for public schools, hospitals and other beneficiaries, and his proposal would boost it to 6 percent – an extra 1 percentage point.

At the current rate of 5 percent, the state expects to get an annual distribution from the fund of about $689 million in the coming fiscal year.

Maestas said the fund is generating double-digit gains, well above the 6 percent he proposed. And the distributions would be suspended if the land grant fund fell below $12 billion, based on a five-year average.

The extra 1 percent would generate $130 million to $150 million a year. Early on, some of the money would be used to help school districts fund general education programs, supporters said. After a phase-in period, all of the money would go toward early childhood programs.

The proposal now heads to two other House committees: the Local Government, Elections, Land Grants and Cultural Affairs Committee and the Judiciary Committee.