March 15, 2019

Governor makes final, futile pitch on early ed

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Courtesy Photo

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during her 2019 State of the State address.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made her last pitch to a Senate committee Friday for additional funding for early childhood education.

But she couldn’t get a vote.

With her 3-year-old granddaughter in tow, the newly elected Democratic governor called for lawmakers to consider using a larger share of the state’s nearly $18 billion land grant permanent fund to pay for pre-kindergarten programs.

Lujan Grisham had backed a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide whether to take an additional percentage point from the fund for early childhood education, on top of the 5 percent the state currently uses each year for public schools and other institutions.

When Democrats joined with Republicans on the Senate Rules Committee to block that idea, Lujan Grisham threw her support behind a measure that called for half a percent. Senate Bill 671 passed the chamber’s education committee.

But the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. John Arthur Smith, has long opposed the idea of using a bigger share of the land grant permanent fund, which fiscal conservatives in the Legislature contend must be protected to finance the state’s school system when oil and gas revenue is no longer gushing.

The bill sat in the Senate Finance Committee for more than a week until Friday, when Smith gave Lujan Grisham time to make a presentation, with a little more than 24 hours to go in the legislative session. He was blunt, though, that the governor had 30 minutes and that the committee wouldn’t vote on any bill.

During the nearly hour-long meeting, the governor said that while lawmakers have added nearly $40 million in additional funds for pre-kindergarten to a proposed budget, the she argued the state needs far more.

“We cannot catch up unless we spend about $285 million for universal for pre-K,” she said.

In turn, she argued, the state has to use various sources of funding, such as the permanent fund.

Until then, the issue has left New Mexico with a sort of Sophie’s Choice, the governor argued.

“Does my granddaughter get to have early childhood [education] or is it yours?” Lujan Grisham asked the committee.

Smith and several other members of the committee raised concerns that using a larger share of the fund would undermine its growth for the long term, particularly if the oil market declines.

“There will be a collapse,” Smith said.

Ultimately, the debate over the permanent fund appears unlikely to lead anywhere before the session adjourns at noon Saturday.

Lujan Grisham counted the hearing itself as a victory given that the committee has not even taken votes on the issue in recent years.

But the hearing came the day after eight Senate Democrats joined with Republicans to snub another of the new governor priorities: a bill to repeal New Mexico’s old, unenforceable ban on abortion.

Asked after the hearing why the Democrat-controlled Senate had been such a roadblock to many of the issues she has pushed, the governor disagreed that it had been.

Clutching a box of her granddaughter’s erasable markers, Lujan Grisham ticked off for reporters a list of bills that have passed or appeared to be on the way to passing. She noted an increase in the minimum wage, an expansion of the tax credits for the film industry, nearly half a billion dollars in new funding for education and so on.

“I have work to do in the Senate, I think is your point,” she told a reporter. “And we will continue to do that work.”