The state House Commerce and Economic Development Committee gave the green light Friday to legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to tap more of the state’s nearly $20 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund, even as the governor is prioritizing an alternate proposal to create a new trust fund for a similar purpose.
The committee voted 7-4 along party lines to pass House Joint Resolution 1, which would allow additional distributions of 1 percent from the fund to be used for early childhood educational services. Under current law, annual distributions from the fund are 5 percent of its five-year average value.
The legislation, which would need to be approved by voters in a general election, has been proposed multiple times in previous years and failed repeatedly.
“In order to uplift New Mexico’s children from poverty, we believe it’s of utmost importance to invest in our children,” Rep. Javier Martinez, an Albuquerque Democrat and one of the sponsors of HJR 1, told the committee. “Unfortunately, our investments have not gone far enough.”
House Bill 83, sponsored by Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, and Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, proposes to appropriate $320 million from the state’s general fund to start a new early childhood education and care fund that would draw on two other funding sources in future years.
That proposal aims to help the state leverage unprecedented oil revenue to boost spending on early childhood education, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has emphasized since taking office, without tapping the endowment.
In 2019, the Senate Finance Committee refused to put a proposal similar to HJR 1 to a committee vote, even as Lujan Grisham advocated for it before the panel with her 3-year-old granddaughter in tow.
Since then, Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and the administration have crafted and agreed to support the new proposal. Instead of using the land grant fund, which Smith still opposes, HB 83’s fund would receive distributions from the state’s oil and gas emergency school tax and revenue from federal mineral leases.
Yet the proponents of using the land grant fund are still forging ahead undaunted.
Rep. Antonio Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat who is also sponsoring HJR 1, declined to comment on the new fund proposal on Friday, saying he hadn’t read the bill.
Yet he said that “any dollar the government spends on early childhood is a dollar well-spent.”
Maestas said during the hearing that there’s more reason now than ever to use more of the land grant fund because it’s grown to be so large.
The Land Grant Permanent Fund had a balance of $19.7 billion as of Dec. 31.
It is set to distribute $836.4 million to 21 state beneficiaries next fiscal year, a $52 million increase from this year, according to the State Investment Council. The bulk of that money goes to early learning and public school programs, while a smaller portion goes to universities, hospitals and other institutions.
The great majority of the public comments during the hearing Friday were in support of HJR 1. A lobbyist from the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce was the only public commenter to voice opposition.
Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said she voted against HJR 1 on Friday because she opposes spending so much money on early childhood programs that aren’t targeted toward at-risk children.
Dow, who has worked for years in early childhood education, also said she’s supportive of the Lujan Grisham-backed proposal because she believes the land grant fund should remain earmarked only for its current recipients.
“Having lived through a 16.9 percent budget cut to our district, we’ve got to save that,” Dow said, referring to the budget cuts the state sustained in 2016. “If we’re going to increase the distributions, it’s going to be to save these districts for the next downturn.”
The Governor’s Office said Friday that it wasn’t opposed to any measure that would increase early childhood funding, but also said it was being “pragmatic.”
“We have this new different approach that has a lot of momentum behind it that we think would be really successful,” spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said, referring to the proposal for the new trust fund.