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AG Balderas endorses early childhood education amendment

SANTA FE – New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas is backing a proposal to tap into the state’s land grant permanent fund to raise money for early childhood education and other services.

The resolution would amend the state Constitution to increase annual distributions from the fund to 6 percent, up from the current 5 percent. If approved by the Legislature, the idea would go before voters in 2018.

The extra percentage point would generate about $150 million a year in new revenue – much of which would go toward services aimed at helping young children before they’re old enough to go to school, such as home-visiting programs to help new parents.

About 15 percent of the money, however, would go to the standard beneficiaries who already receive revenue from the fund, such as universities and hospitals.

Balderas said it would be a wise investment.

“The keys to happy, healthy, successful children,” he said in a written statement, “include strong families and strong schools. … It is unacceptable for New Mexico to be at the top of all the wrong lists as our children pay the price.”

The proposal has been on the House calendar for action for about a week, but it hasn’t been brought up for a vote yet. It faces a narrow path to approval.

To advance to the Senate, House Joint Resolution 1 must win approval of 36 of the 70 members of the House.

The bill failed to pick up any Republican support during committee debates, which means that almost unanimous Democratic support is necessary to keep the proposal moving.

Democrats have had 37 members present for most of the session. Just two defections or absences would be enough to sink the bill, unless it draws some GOP support.

The Senate is another challenge. Some Democrats there – particularly some members of the Senate Finance Committee – have repeatedly expressed skepticism about the wisdom of tapping into the fund.

Opponents say the increased distribution would weaken the permanent fund, which is already a crucial source of revenue for the state. It produces hundreds of millions of dollars a year, or about 11 percent of the state budget.

A larger annual distribution, opponents say, would slow the fund’s growth and, consequently, the annual revenue available to future generations. And in bad economic times, it could even eat into the fund’s principal, they say.

New Mexico’s permanent fund is supported primarily by investment income and taxes on oil and natural gas.

House Joint Resolution 1 is co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Javier Martinez, both of Albuquerque.

To take effect, the proposal would have to be approved by the Legislature and voters. Gov. Susana Martinez can’t veto proposals to amend the state Constitution.