February 16, 2020

Proposal to tap land grant permanent fund for early childhood education suffers another setback

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Matthew Reichbach

For years, it was one of the most talked-about proposals in the Roundhouse. 

There was repeated excitement, momentum, controversy and resistance — all over legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to tap more of the state’s nearly $20 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education.

But this year, the atmosphere is more one of muted neglect.

That’s likely because there’s a new kid on the block, a proposal to create an early childhood trust fund with other revenue streams. The idea has traveled further in its first year than the land grant proposal ever has — it reached the governor’s desk after being passed by the full Senate on Friday.

A big setback for the land grant proposal came on Saturday in the Senate Rules Committee, where most members walked out before the legislation, known this year as House Joint Resolution 1, was heard. Many legislators had been in the room for other matters earlier that morning, yet only four were left when HJR1 was taken up, depriving its supporters of a quorum needed for a vote. 

“I apologize. Some of my members decided to pick up and leave,” said Sen. Linda Lopez, committee chairwoman, later adding she believed the absent members left the room on purpose because they opposed the bill. “I’ve been here for many years and I understand the game that’s being played.”

Some of those absent — such as Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen and Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell — later denied that they left because they opposed the bill, saying they needed to head to the floor session. Yet Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, while saying he had no knowledge of any coordinated effort to avoid a quorum, offered a more blunt assessment.

“It’s not a bad way to kill a bill,” said Ingle, R-Portales.

Lopez said she would keep the initiative on the committee’s agenda for its next meeting on Monday, but that she expected members might again leave to prevent a vote. If that happens, the bill faces near-certain death because the session ends on Thursday. 

While the bill has been blocked by Senate committees in the past, this year is different as the political will and momentum has clearly shifted to the new proposal: House Bill 83 and its counterpart Senate Bill 3. They call 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.

Why has the bid to tap the land grant fund been superseded? First and foremost, the oil boom. The huge one-time appropriation to create the fund wouldn’t be possible without New Mexico’s unprecedented oil windfall, and likely neither would its subsequent distributions from the state’s oil and gas emergency school tax and revenue from federal mineral leases.

Another key reason is Sen. John Arthur Smith. The powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, whose command of all things money-related is formidable, has been adamant for years about not touching the land grant fund. Last year, he refused to put the proposal to a committee vote even after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham advocated for it before the panel with her 3-year-old granddaughter in tow.

Yet Smith is supportive of the new trust fund proposal — he even co-sponsored the bill alongside Rep. Doreen Gallegos. That goes a long way to getting political momentum, as does the fact that it’s one of Lujan Grisham’s top priorities for the session, and other moderate Democrats and Republicans back it, too.

“The reality is we’ve created a way to fund these programs, so HJR1 becomes a moot point,” Pirtle said. 

Supporters of the land grant proposal, such as co-sponsors Reps. Antonio Maestas and Javier Martinez, have said they’ll keep pushing regardless of what happens with the trust fund bill. And some proponents sharply criticized the lawmakers who walked out Saturday. 

“The opponents don’t even want to come and say why they’re against it,” Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino said. “This is really a scandal that we won’t even take a look at this.”

The other absent Democrats were Sens. Clemente Sanchez and Daniel Ivey-Soto, while all Republicans on the panel were missing: Ingle, Pirtle, Gregory Baca and Mark Moores. 

Lopez, who supports the land grant proposal, said even if the bill dies this year it could gain momentum again next year if the political composition of the Senate changes and becomes more favorable to the idea after November’s elections. If the bill were passed by the Legislature, it would still need voter approval in a general election.

“I think the voters deserve a chance to make this decision,” Lopez said.