February 9, 2018

Amendment to tap endowment for early ed funding moves closer to ballot

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

Democratic state legislators who want to expand early childhood education by spending a portion of New Mexico’s $16 billion land grant endowment won another round Friday, bringing their proposal to a pivotal point.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-3 on party lines to advance the proposed constitutional amendment, formally called House Joint Resolution 1.

Republicans on the committee opposed the measure, saying spending more of the endowment now would hurt future generations. One Republican lawmaker also pointed to the market’s recent volatility and said the fund has lost hundreds of millions of dollars during the decline.

Under the proposed amendment, another 1 percent would be taken from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund. Most of that money — an estimated $150 million a year — would be used for early childhood programs.

Democrats called the proposal an investment in people that would improve both child well-being and the state’s economy.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, one of the proposed amendment’s sponsors, cited studies showing that early childhood education increases kids’ readiness for kindergarten, improves reading proficiency and ultimately increases the number of college graduates.

In turn, by approving the amendment, costs to the state for prisons and criminal courts would decrease, said Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

The program would focus on children from infancy to age 5. Pediatricians, clergy, teachers and business people all testified for the constitutional amendment, saying it would help kids succeed in school and close the achievement gap between minority children and white students.

But Republican Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho, a member of the Education Committee, said he was skeptical of the claims.

Brandt said the Legislature had put another $137 million into early education programs since he arrived in 2012 but had not seen proven results.

That brought a fast response from Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, the other sponsor of the proposed amendment.

“If you invest in the early years, the return is off the charts,” he said of the national research on student performance.

Five percent of the land grant endowment now is distributed annually to beneficiaries. That totaled about $683 million this year. Most of that money goes to k-through-12 public schools.

The endowment receives revenue from two sources, market investments as well as royalties and leases of state land, notably the oil-rich Permian Basin in Southeastern New Mexico.

Like Brandt, Sen. Jim White, R-Albuquerque, said extraction industries will end one day, and the endowment will be needed to support the school system.

“We need to protect that permanent fund to fund schools in the future,” White said.

He also pointed out that recent plunges in the stock market have diminished the endowment’s value, signaling an end to a boom time.

Advocates have pushed the proposed constitutional amendment since 2011. They were heartened Friday because even opponents of the measure have softened some of their criticisms.

For instance, Carla Sonntag, president of the New Mexico Business Coalition, testified that it would be imprudent to spend more of the fund. Sonntag also said the amendment would not decimate the endowment, but would deter its growth.

Maestas made the same point, mentioning projections by analysts that say the Land Grant Permanent Fund would grow to $28 billion by 2030. Brandt, though, said the same projection shows that an additional $3 billion would go into the fund if the constitutional amendment is not approved.

The measure next faces its sternest test. It goes to the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Democrat from Deming who opposes the proposal and carries enormous influence.

The 12-member Finance Committee has seven Democrats and five Republicans. With Smith a likely opponent of the proposal, the sponsors would need a Republican senator’s support to keep the measure alive.

If the proposal clears the Finance Committee and then the full 42-member Senate, it would be placed on the November ballot for a vote of the people.

Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080. Follow his Ringside Seat column in Monday’s and Friday’s editions.