January 28, 2020

Early ed endowment moves forward (Updated)

Matthew Reichbach

A bill calling for a new endowment to create a revenue stream for early childhood programs was approved Monday by the Senate Education Committee — surviving its first test in the Legislature.

Under Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, the Early Childhood Education and Care Fund would get its first infusion of cash, $320 million, in fiscal year 2021. It would then get annual distributions from the state’s oil and gas emergency school tax and revenue from federal mineral leases until it reaches at least $1 billion.

The Senate Education Committee unanimously voted in favor of the bill.

Smith told lawmakers on the committee the fund would distribute $20 million for public and private early childhood education programs around New Mexico in its first year. Over time, he said, the fund would provide between $60 million and $90 million a year for programs.

“This will benefit our kids, their kids and their grandkids,” Gallegos told the committee. “This is the moment for us to act.”

Gallegos and Smith are sponsoring an identical bill in House.

Advocates of early childhood education programs say they better prepare students for kindergarten, increase academic proficiency and literacy rates, and cut down on the dropout rate.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is making early childhood education a cornerstone of her platform, has voiced support for the endowment and included startup funds in her proposed spending plan.

Two of Cabinet officials, Early Childhood Education Secretary-designate Elizabeth Groginsky and Finance and Administration Secretary Olivia Padilla-Jackson attended the hearing Monday to push for passage of SB 3.

“Nothing we do will generate more long-term financial stability than investing in our young New Mexicans,” said Groginsky, whose new department would oversee revenues from the endowment.

The endowment is one of several measures that would boost funding for early childhood programs.

On Friday, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee gave the first vote of approval for House Joint Resolution 1, which calls for a ballot measure asking voters to decide on a constitutional amendment allowing the state to withdraw more revenues from its nearly $20 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education.

But similar legislation has failed to pass both chambers in the past several years.

Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has opposed increasing withdrawals from existing endowments to fund early education. But he agreed to sign on to the new permanent fund for prekindergarten programs.

Given the state’s robust oil and gas industry, he said, it could provide a reliable revenue stream for the new fund.

Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, voiced concern Monday that it would take a long time for the Early Childhood Education and Care Fund to grow to a point where it is providing sufficient revenues for programs.

“We got kids. We can’t say, ‘Stay at 1 year old until these funds start coming,’ ” Soules said, urging legislators to do more to support pre-K programs in the interim.

Correction: This incorrectly  reported that a Senate bill to create a new endowment to help fund early childhood programs was amended Monday to delay the initial appropriation of $320 million to fiscal year 2022. In fact, Senate Bill 3 calls for the first appropriation in fiscal year 2021. The change in the bill approved by the Senate Education Committee on Monday instead calls for another source of revenue for the endowment to begin distributing funds to it beginning in fiscal year 2022.