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Archbishop to senators: Big NM fund shouldn’t be ‘golden calf’

SANTA FE — A day after a proposal to earmark more money from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund for early childhood programs stalled in a Senate committee, the state’s top Roman Catholic official urged senators to revive it.

Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester, at a news conference today in the state Capitol, called it “morally unacceptable” for lawmakers not to divert more money from the $15 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund for child-focused programs in a state with one of the nation’s highest poverty rates.

“We cannot wait another year,” Wester said. “Our children cannot wait another year.”

With just two days left in the 60-day session, it appears unlikely the proposal, House Joint Resolution 1, could be revived and win full Senate approval.

However, backers pointed out during today’s news conference the Senate has acted quickly in past years to advance legislation deemed necessary.

The measure was tabled Wednesday via a 6-5 vote in the Senate Rules Committee, with two Senate Democrats — Clemente Sanchez of Grants and Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces — joining the panel’s four Republican members in casting “yes” votes to table the bill.

The tabling motion was made by Papen, the Senate’s president pro tem, who said she would support an alternative measure that would provide less money for early childhood programs.

“I will support early childhood, but I will not support taking money from the permanent fund,” Papen said.

Proponents have been trying for years to increase the annual distribution amount from the permanent fund, but have encountered determined resistance from lawmakers wary about tapping the fund. Overall state spending on home visiting and other early childhood programs has increased in the meantime.

This year’s proposal calls specifically for an additional 1 percentage point distribution – or 6 percent total – from the Land Grant Permanent Fund.

But backers indicated today they’re willing to consider a lower distribution rate in order to get the proposal to the Senate floor.

“We are open to negotiate that 1 percent in order to take this to the voters in 2018,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, one of the measure’s co-sponsors.

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