March 10, 2019

House sends bill creating new early ed department to governor’s desk

One of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s pet initiatives will soon be on her desk for a signature, after the state House of Representatives on Saturday voted 41-8 to approve a bill that would create an Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

The department would oversee all programs for infants and young children in New Mexico, including home visits for families of new babies, child care assistance and prekindergarten.

Currently those programs are spread out over a number of state agencies, including the Public Education Department and the Children, Youth and Families Department. State Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, said this bill will combine all of those services into one new division, overseen by a Cabinet-level secretary.

“What we are doing here with this bill, by combining all of the services for early learning, we are in fact making it more efficient,” said Trujillo, who co-sponsored Senate Bill 22 with Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque.

Padilla initially said that by placing all these responsibilities in one department, the state would see a cost savings.

But asked by several Republican lawmakers Saturday how much the state would save with this action, Trujillo said, “This is not necessarily about cost savings. … It’s about being more efficient and providing more comprehensive services for young people.”

Currently, she said, the state spends about $350 million to operate its early childhood programs; the new agency would “not [spend] any more than what we are paying via multiple departments.”

Republican legislators remained dubious that the plan would be as efficient as Trujillo claimed.

“Very seldom do you create a new agency and reduce bureaucracy,” said Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington.

Learning that the new department will necessitate the appointment of yet another Cabinet secretary, Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, said not only would the state be better off without another secretary, but it could do just fine “with a few less.”

The state currently has 22 Cabinet secretaries.

Not all Republicans were against the idea. Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, praised Trujillo for her efforts in shaping the bill and said, “This is a moment to celebrate.”

Other Republicans also said they see a need for such an action.

Advocates for prekindergarten and other programs for children from birth to age 5 say they better prepare children for kindergarten and help them develop emotional and social skills. These early initiatives pay off down the line with higher student achievement scores, lower dropout rates and better preparation for college and careers, proponents say.

Studies have shown that programs such as home visiting for new parents also lead to improved health care and early identification and treatment of developmental delays in infants, and can aid in child abuse prevention.

While New Mexico’s public education system generally ranks at or near the bottom in most national studies, it merits high marks for early childhood education. In April, the National Institute of Early Education Research released a study saying New Mexico had steadily invested in preschool programs and was “punching above its weight” in quality.

The bill comes with a one-time appropriation of $1.25 million to get the department up and running between July 1, 2019, and July 1, 2020. After that, Trujillo said, the department will use money from the state general fund to operate it.

Trujillo said the state now serves about 91,000 children from birth to age 5 with child care, home visiting and educational programs. In addition, the federal Head Start program serves another 9,000. The state could reach 48,000 more children who need these programs, she said, and the new department can help facilitate that.

The Senate approved the bill a week ago by a vote of 39-2.