January 30, 2020

Early ed funding proposals clear House committee — but one faces a tougher future

Laura Paskus

As the state prepares to consolidate most services for its youngest residents in a newly created department, the House Education Committee on Wednesday approved a pair of measures with different strategies for funding an expansion of programs for children from birth to age 5.

Neither idea is new, and both — which head to the full House of Representatives for consideration — rely heavily on the state’s recent windfall of oil and gas revenues.

But one measure drew wide support in a committee room crowded with a diverse array of proponents on both sides of the political aisle, while the other — which would create a far larger revenue stream for New Mexico’s kids — intensified an ongoing clash over the potential risks and rewards of tapping an investment fund that now holds nearly $20 billion.

The debate suggested that although most state leaders favor increases in early childhood services in an effort to improve education and economic outcomes, the surge in funding some advocates have sought for years isn’t likely to come in this legislative session.

“This bill has been before you for far too long,” Paul Gibson, co-founder of the social activist group Retake Our Democracy, told the House Education Committee, urging lawmakers to move forward House Joint Resolution 1 — which would let New Mexico voters decide on a constitutional amendment calling for a 1 percent withdrawal from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund. It would provide about $175 million a year.

He was one of several people who advocated for both funding sources, citing an overwhelming need across the state.

Rep. Jack Chatfield, R-Mosquero, countered that the state land endowment, which is providing about $1 billion this year for public schools and other beneficiaries through a withdrawal of about 5 percent, “is stable for one reason: It can’t be raided.”

Chatfield and other Republicans on the committee joined Democrats in a unanimous vote in favor of House Bill 83, which calls for an initial appropriation of $320 million to create a new endowment for early childhood education and care. In later years, the fund would receive distributions from other sources, such as the state’s oil and gas emergency school tax and federal mineral leases.

Finance and Administration Secretary Olivia Padilla Jackson said she expects the fund reach $500 million by fiscal year 2022 and produce at least $30 million annually.

The proposal, with an identical bill moving through the Senate, was backed by educators, child advocates, faith groups, tribal leaders and industry associations.

It also has support from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and is co-sponsored by Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee and staunchly opposes more land grant fund withdrawals.

“This bill is the Governor’s top priority for the 2020 Legislative Session,” said John Bingaman, Lujan Grisham’s chief of staff. “The fund will start off small, but we believe it is set up to grow.”

Lujan Grisham, who made a personal plea for support of a similar measure in a Senate committee last year, has not voiced support for HJR 1.

The legislation, sponsored by Democratic Albuquerque Reps. Javier Martínez and Antonio Maestas, passed the committee 10-3, with the three Republicans present voting against it.

The measure is being proposed for the eighth straight legislative session. Smith is often credited with blocking it.

Efforts to draw more funds from the endowment to boost early childhood education date back more than a decade.

In 2010, when the fund stood at about $10 billion, lawmakers sought a 1.5 percent distribution for early childhood programs. But opponents argued the $100 million withdraw would erode the fund.

Since then, the fund has grown by an average of about $1 billion a year.

“When we start taking money from that fund, it’s a loss of stability that our forefathers intended when they created it,” Chatfield and other Republicans argued Wednesday.

Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, noted the many references to “forefathers” during the debate and said the state’s constitution was written several years before women had the right to vote.

Now, she said, on the anniversary of women’s suffrage, “I think it’s high time that women’s voices get to be heard. That’s why I want to take this out to the voters.”