Study backs tapping permanent fund

SANTA FE – They’ve tried it a half-dozen times before.

But supporters of a proposal to tap into the Land Grant Permanent Fund – and boost money to pay for early-childhood services – say they’re optimistic that this is the year it gets through the Legislature.

To that end, they rolled out a new study Tuesday that says the need for home visiting and similar programs is far more drastic than state analysts have previously estimated. New Mexico needs about $406 million more for those services, according to the study, not $115 million.

But the proposal still faces serious political obstacles.

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Sen. John Arthur Smith – a Deming Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee – said the Land Grant Permanent Fund is a vital source of revenue for New Mexico’s general operating budget. In an interview, he suggested he isn’t any more willing this year than he has been in the past to support diverting some money away from the fund.

“It’s not financially responsible, to my way of thinking,” Smith said.

Supporters nevertheless sounded optimistic Tuesday about finally sending the proposal to voters. They won a recommendation of passage from a second House committee – out of three needed before it would hit the floor – on a party-line vote, Democrats in the majority.

Allen Sánchez, president of CHI St. Joseph’s Children, a faith-based nonprofit group, said supporters of the constitutional amendment have new evidence on their side. A 51-page report by a consultant estimates that there’s unmeet need in New Mexico for about $406 million in early-childhood education services, such as home visiting programs that help young parents.

That’s far more than a similar estimate by the Legislative Finance Committee, which pegged the need at $115 million.

The difference is that the new study suggests more people need the services, that the programs should be of higher quality and that there should be money dedicated to evaluating the effectiveness of the work, according to the report by Catherine F. Kinney, a Santa Fe-based expert. She was hired by CHI St. Joseph’s Children, which supports the amendment.

House Joint Resolution 1, co-sponsored by Democrats Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Javier Martinez, both of Albuquerque, calls for disbursements from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to be increased by 1 percentage point, from 5 percent to 6 percent.

The goal is to generate an extra $112 million or so for early childhood programs.

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