Early childhood fund bill tabled

SANTA FE – A plan to create a new endowment fund for New Mexico early childhood programs by shifting control of millions of acres of federally owned mineral rights stalled in the Roundhouse on Wednesday, after being hit with a wave of opposition.

In an unusual move, the bill’s sponsor, Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, asked members of a Senate committee to table the measure, which they did.

Although the legislation, Senate Bill 182, could be brought back up later in this year’s 60-day legislative session, Papen said Wednesday that it needs significant fine-tuning.

“It needs a lot more work,” Papen told the Journal.

She also said Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, the architect of the legislation, was in agreement with the decision.

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Kristin Haase, an assistant commissioner in the State Land Office, acknowledged the bill could be dead for the current session, which ends March 18.

“We believe it was an idea worth pursuing, and we will be considering other alternatives,” she said after Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Education Committee.

Under the terms of the proposal, up to 6.6 million acres of unleased federally owned mineral rights beneath private land would be shifted to the state.

The State Land Office would lease them out – for oil and gas drilling, for example – with the revenue flowing into an Early Childhood Education Land Grant Permanent Fund.

Although the fund would have to be created by the Legislature, the actual transfer of mineral rights would require the approval of Congress.

Environmental groups and other critics of the measure, who expressed concern that the proposal could open the door to federal public land transfers, bombarded Papen and other senators with phone calls and messages in the days leading up to Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our state’s budget crisis shows the problem with not diversifying our economy and relying too much on oil and gas,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “By attempting to frame this as a pro-education bill, the State Land Office neglected to acknowledge the detrimental impact increasing oil and gas (drilling) would have on our environment and the health of our children.”

The proposal is one of several measures filed this year at the state Capitol that are aimed at increasing funding for home visiting and other early childhood programs.

However, the other plans generally call for more money being diverted from an existing state endowment fund, the $15 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund.

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