March 13, 2017

Panel delays vote on early childhood ed initiative

Most members of the Senate Rules Committee trickled out of a hearing Monday, scuttling a vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to expand funding for early childhood education.

The lack of a quorum stalled House Joint Resolution 1 in the first of two committees it must clear before even reaching a vote of the full Senate before the legislative session ends at noon Saturday.

A couple Republicans were in the room when the Rules Committee took up the proposal. But all four Republicans on the committee either left the hearing or never entered it. Two Democrats also were absent, so only five of the committee’s 11 members remained as the debate wound to a close. A majority of a committee’s members must be present for it to act on legislation.

Without a quorum, the Rules Committee chairwoman, Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, adjourned the committee altogether.

“We’re at a standstill,” she told the remaining members, all Democrats.

One cosponsor accused the resolution’s critics of leaving to avoid a vote rather than go on the record opposing the proposal.

“They know a vote against this is a bad vote,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque.

But the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said later he had been meeting with constituents just outside the hearing room.

And one of the absent Democrats, Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants, said he was in a previously scheduled meeting also attended by another member of the committee, Senate President Pro Tempore Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces.

Papen has opposed similar measures to use the land grant endowment to help pay for early childhood education. Sanchez said Monday he was not sure how he would vote.

The resolution would ask New Mexico voters to approve using an extra 1 percent from the state’s $15 billion land grant endowment to help pay for early childhood education. The change would generate about $153 million in the first year for early childhood education.

The resolution is sponsored by Democrats and backed by teachers unions as well as advocacy groups that say putting additional money into early childhood programs would save the state far more because this would help alleviate poverty. Advocates say an expanded education program for kids from infancy to age 5 would lead to more high school and college graduates, reduce the prison population and add more taxpayers to the rolls.

But the measure has met opposition from Republicans and budget hawks among Democrats. They oppose any attempt to tap the endowment for another program. The land grant fund already helps fund universities and K-12 public schools.

The measure barely passed the House with a vote of 37-32, with ailing Santa Fe Rep. Jim Trujillo arriving at the Capitol to support it. Trujillo has missed much of the legislative session after undergoing heart surgery.

The Senate is where similar proposals have died in past years. And this year might be no different.

Even if the resolution clears the Senate Rules Committee, it would still have to win approval in the Senate Finance Committee. The finance chairman, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, is a longtime critic of the proposal.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.