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Early childhood amendment narrowly wins House passage

SANTA FE – Rep. Jim Trujillo – a Santa Fe Democrat who has missed much of the session with heart problems – returned to the House floor late Wednesday to help ensure passage of a proposed constitutional amendment that would tap into New Mexico’s permanent fund, mostly to pay for early childhood services.

His vote gave Democrats a little extra breathing room as the measure won approval on a 37-32 vote – one vote more than the 36 required to send it on to the Senate, where similar efforts have died in the past.

Supporters of the bill described it as a chance to interrupt the cycle of poverty in New Mexico, where 82 percent of children are born to Medicaid-eligible families.

Opponents said the proposal would damage the financial health of the Land Grant Permanent Fund, which already provides hundreds of millions of dollars for the state government, or about 11 percent of the budget. They also questioned whether the money would be spent effectively.

The resolution would amend the state Constitution to increase annual distributions from the fund to 6 percent, up from 5 percent now.

The extra percentage point would generate about $150 million a year in new revenue. About 85 percent of the new revenue 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.

Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Javier Martinez, both Albuquerque Democrats, said early childhood programs are a cost-effective way to help lift kids out of poverty. Preparing a child for school has benefits that last long after they enter school, they said.

“This is proven as a strategy to help a child’s reading levels,” said Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park. “Investment in kids – investment in our most valuable resource – pays dividends down the road. This works.”

Republicans agreed that early childhood development is important. But they said the proposal offers no assurance the money will be well spent and, furthermore, the permanent fund isn’t the right place to find the money.

“We’re just going to say, ‘Here’s the money,'” said Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque. “I think that’s totally irresponsible.”

He pointed out that 15 percent of the money would go to the standard beneficiaries who already receive revenue from the fund, such as universities and hospitals, not early childhood services.

Under the proposal, the early childhood money would be sent to New Mexico’s 89 school districts to oversee the programs.

There’s also a phase-in period where some of the money would go to general public education, not necessarily early childhood programs.

The proposal advanced mostly along party lines. Republican Yvette Herrell voted “yes,” and Democrats Bobby Gonzales and Candie Sweetser voted “no.”

If approved by the Senate, the constitutional amendment would go to voters in 2018. The amendment also would have to be approved by Congress.

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