Several Democrats joined with Republicans on a state Senate committee Monday to block a proposed constitutional amendment on early childhood education funding, snubbing a priority for members of their party in the New Mexico House and posing a challenge to the agenda of newly elected Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The Senate Rules Committee tabled a resolution that would have asked voters to decide whether the state should take an additional 1 percent of the nearly $18 billion land grant permanent fund each year to expand services to the youngest New Mexicans.
Backed by a coalition that includes liberal advocacy groups and the Catholic Church, the measure has foundered for years in the face of opposition from budget hawks among Senate Democrats who contend the proposal would undercut the growth of an endowment that is key to the state’s school system.
But Lujan Grisham urged lawmakers in her State of the State Address this year to consider taking a “responsible pinch” — a “poquito” — of the fund to pay for more early childhood education programs.
Within hours of the Rules Committee’s vote on Monday, the Democratic governor offered up an alternative to the tabled bill, proposing to take half as much money and designate it specifically for pre-Kindergarten, with a separate provision she argued should assuage the concerns of fiscal conservatives concerned about depleting the fund.
If Lujan Grisham can win support for that idea, she will have pulled off a victory that has eluded Democratic leaders in the House.
But it comes as several of her priorities face some skeptical Democrats in the Senate, from raising the minimum wage to repealing an old, unenforceable law that criminalized abortion.
The biggest question coming out of Monday’s vote may be whether Lujan Grisham can rally Democratic senators or if this is just a first sign that her political capital will only go so far on that side of the Roundhouse, even if she just came off a 14-point election victory and is helping to divvy up a big budget surplus.
The state portions out 5 percent annually to the permanent fund’s various beneficiaries, which are mostly public schools but also include other institutions such as public hospitals.
Under House Joint Resolution 1, if voters approved, that share was to increase to 6 percent a year and earmark the additional money for early childhood education. That would have amounted to around $175 million a year at the start, according to a legislative analysis.
Backers argued that this would allow the state to significantly expand access to early childhood education.
Supporters, such as the Catholic Church, have cast this not only as a policy issue but as a moral one, arguing the state is watching the fund grow at a time when New Mexico routinely ranks as having one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country.
“[Lawmakers] are worried about a percentage of money. They should be worried about the percentage of children left behind,” said Allen Sánchez, president of CHI St. Joseph’s Children in Albuquerque and executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But critics have argued that spending more of the endowment would imperil a major source of funding for the state’s education system.
Moreover, the state is already expected to enjoy a budget surplus of around $1 billion for this fiscal year.
“We couldn’t find $200 million to do early childhood?” Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a Republican from Roswell, asked during Monday’s hearing.
Three Democrats on the Senate Rules Committee joined all four Republicans to table the measure on a 7-4 vote. The Democrats were Sens. Clemente Sanchez of Grants, Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, and Bill Tallman of Albuquerque.
While the committee could still revive the idea, the opposition of such influential senators spelled its death.
Raising his voice, Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a Democrat from Albuquerque, said the vote was “infuriating.”
The proposal’s demise in the Senate may have been inevitable but for the governor’s support for the idea. That had sparked some optimism that the measure stood a better chance this year.
On the campaign trail, Lujan Grisham had offered a more modest proposal of around $57 million a year for five years.
So, Lujan Grisham quickly rolled out a sort of compromise measure on Monday afternoon. Senate Bill 671, sponsored by Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez, a Democrat from Albuquerque, would take half of one percent instead of one percent from the permanent fund. It would scale back that distribution if the permanent fund ever falls below $12.5 billion. All of this would still rely on the Legislature approving a constitutional amendment and sending it to voters for approval.
That would give supporters something rather than nothing, even if it does not meet what they have said is needed for early childhood education. But it still may not sway some Democrats who oppose tapping the permanent fund at all.
Lujan Grisham said she did not have any guarantees from lawmakers.
“I don’t have a commitment by any committee that this sails through,” she said. “But I clearly have momentum on our side that these are debates they are willing to have.”
The governor added: “Over the course of time, a half a percent doesn’t create the kind of risks members of, say, Senate Finance have been worried about.”
Moreover, the governor said it would keep the debate alive.
While the state has a windfall of revenue now thanks to an oil and gas boom, it needs a mix of funds to reliably pay for early childhood education in the future.
“This gives us a renewed opportunity to continue this very important discussion and to win it,” she said.
The Senate Education Committee is expected to take up the new bill on Wednesday.