January 22, 2018

Dems again push to use land grant to fund early childhood education

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The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

A ballot measure that calls for using more money from the state’s $17 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education is a small step closer to going to voters this year.

The House Education Committee on Monday voted 7-6 along party lines to approve the constitutional amendment that backers say could expand access to education programs for young children across New Mexico, the state with the highest rate of child poverty.

Republicans on the committee voted against the proposal. They say it could deplete a fund that now props up the budgets of New Mexico’s public schools and is supposed to last forever.

Democrats in the House of Representatives have made a priority of getting the measure, House Joint Resolution 1, on the November ballot. The measure is likely to pass out of the full 70-member House on a close vote.

Unclear is whether budget hawks from both parties in the Senate could be persuaded to support it. They have blocked the measure in the past.

Founded after New Mexico’s entry to the union in 1912, the Land Grant Permanent Fund has accumulated revenue from a booming oil and gas industry. That money has in turn been invested in a sprawling portfolio, generating yet more revenue.

Five percent of the fund is already designated for select beneficiaries, mostly public schools. In raw numbers, about $683 million is going to beneficiaries this year.

But Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, argued to the committee that the way this money is divvied out remains relatively conservative. With steady growth in the stock market, the fund can afford to pay out the extra percentage point, Maestas said.

Supporters say applying that money to early childhood education would help break a cycle of poverty that has long placed New Mexico near last if not dead last in all manner of rankings on child well-being.

If approved by voters, the amendment would initially mean $140 million more for education each year.

The proposal includes a provision that would suspend payouts if the five-year average value of the land grant fund drops below $10 billion. Legislators could also vote to suspend the payments by a three-fifths majority of both the House and Senate.

But fiscal conservatives among Republicans and Democrats alike argue that using a greater share of the fund could deplete it.

Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, said the land grant endowment is meant to provide continuing funding for education when the state can no longer rely on oil, gas and other minerals for tax revenue.

“When the money runs out … this is all we will have to rely on to fund schools,” Roch said.

And Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, pointed to several other pieces of legislation this year that call for using yet more money from the land grant permanent fund. One such proposal would tap the fund to fight crime.

Other Republicans questioned whether more funding will really make the difference when child poverty is influenced by a variety of factors.

The state Public Education Department has described the proposal as an irresponsible way of expanding early childhood education programs.

Seemingly exasperated by the debate over this proposal year after year, Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, argued that, if increasing funding for early childhood education is widely accepted, then lawmakers should put the issue to voters.

“Many people love kids in the abstract but not in the concrete,” she said. “Put your money where your mouth is.”

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.