February 6, 2020

Senate approves money for early childhood dept. fund

The full state Senate approved legislation Wednesday that would create a new revenue stream for early childhood programs.

By a vote of 40-0, senators passed Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Sen. John Arthur Smith and Rep. Doreen Gallegos. The legislation calls for an appropriation of $320 million to start a new Early Childhood Education and Care Fund that would draw on two other funding sources in future years.

The 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 causing volatility in the general fund.

“This gives us a reliable revenue stream,” Smith, D-Deming, said on the Senate floor. “If you have only hills and valleys, you’re not talking about a plan, you’re talking about a political deal.”

Smith, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, also thanked the windfall from the oil boom in the Permian Basin for giving the state the money to create the new fund.

“We still would have been waiting except for the generous returns of oil and gas that have allowed us to do this,” he said.

Smith said the hope is the fund will grow to $1 billion in the next three to five years.

The proposal comes after unsuccessful efforts in previous legislative sessions to draw money from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education, a move that for years has been opposed by fiscal conservatives in the Senate, including Smith. There is another bill this session that represents a renewed effort to tap that fund.

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee has passed the main budget legislation, House Bill 2, with only $300 million allocated to the early childhood trust fund, instead of the $320 million called for in the legislation. Smith said on the floor Wednesday the Senate would add the extra $20 million.

“I’m sure this body will correct that action by the House,” he said. “We will fix that.”

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen also criticized the House panel for removing the $20 million.

“I’m very disappointed that the House took the money out of this bill,” said Papen, D-Las Cruces.

Other senators speaking on the floor largely expressed support for the bill.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, voiced concern that the new trust fund could be used in lieu of regular general fund money for early childhood spending in future years.