January 31, 2019

Dems push plan to tap the ‘permanent fund’ for early childhood education

A proposed constitutional amendment to draw more money from the state Land Grant Permanent Fund to expand early childhood education jumped its first hurdle with ease Wednesday.

The House Education Committee voted 10-4 on party lines for the measure. Democrats supported the measure, House Joint Resolution 1.

It would take another 1 percent — at least $150 million a year — from the $17.5 billion state endowment.

The bill’s proponents, including Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, say early childhood education can transform New Mexico, often regarded as one of the worst states in the nation for public education.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said she wants “a moonshot” in the school system. Martinez said his proposed constitutional amendment would provide it.

“This is the money stream that can help us buy that rocket ship for that moonshot,” he told the committee members.

The proposal would have to overcome a number of tough challenges before it could take off.

Though the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives has supported the measure in the past and will again this year, it will eventually land on the desk of the Senate Finance Committee. The proposal has repeatedly stalled there.

Both Republicans and conservative Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee say they must protect the land grant fund, which supplies hundreds of millions of dollars annually to public schools.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, the Democrat from Deming who heads the finance committee, says he will not support the attempt to draw more money from the endowment. And Smith’s influence in the full 42-member Senate is extraordinary.

Still, advocates for the proposal say it might have a better chance to succeed this year. A state District Court judge has ruled in a lawsuit that legislators and the governor must devise a plan by April 15 to provide more resources for at-risk students.

“They’ve got to approve it. The lawsuit makes it clear,” said Allen Sánchez, president of CHI St. Joseph’s Children, a nonprofit that on its own has expanded early childhood education programs.

About 15 people, including teachers union representatives and an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the court case, testified for the bill.

Two others, including Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Education Leaders, voiced opposition. Rounds said the land grant fund is designed to help public schools, and that money drawn from it for early childhood education would go to both public and private providers.

Rep. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, said the proposal might even provoke a lawsuit from school districts, based on a Legislative Education Study Committee report that said districts could argue the money is not being used for its main beneficiaries — public schools.

The rival party disagreed. Rep. G. Andrés Romero, a Democrat from Albuquerque and chairman of the House Education Committee, said helping small children get off to a good start in school would help everyone.

“With this proposal we are taking a definitive step toward covering all of our kids. … This is money very, very well-spent,” he said.

Even if the proposal clears the Legislature, voters would still have to approve it in the 2020 election. Then Congress would have to ratify it.