February 13, 2021

New Mexico House OKs tapping land grant fund for early childhood education

Tapping revenues for preschool programs from a massive state investment fund has been a Sisyphean task for advocates.

Year after year, lawmakers and others who back the plan have pushed legislation through the House — like a boulder up a hill — only to see it stall in Senate committees led by fiscally conservative Democrats.

House Democrats finally may have a chance to see the measure clear both chambers and reach the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has said she would sign it. A more progressive group of Senate leaders say they favor House Joint Resolution 1 — and might even increase the amount to be withdrawn from the endowment to boost funding for K-12 public schools.

On Friday, the House voted 44-23, mostly along party lines, to approve HJR 1, which would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing for a 1 percent annual distribution from the $22 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund — nearly $200 million a year — to pay for services for New Mexico’s youngest children.

The bill’s main sponsors, Reps. Moe Maestas and Javier Martinez, both Albuquerque Democrats, once again spoke of the potential to improve the well-being of young children in a state that often ranks at the bottom for education and economic measures.

“We know the value of investing in these early years,” Martinez said at the outset of the three-hour debate.

He pointed — as he has many times in the past — to studies showing prekindergarten and other programs for kids 5 and under later pay off with higher high school graduation rates and fewer incarcerations.

House Republicans again questioned the wisdom of taking more money from the endowment and asked whether any studies exist showing that extra investments lead to better academic achievement rates. 

The Land Grant Permanent Fund, which draws investment revenue as well as fees for oil and gas drilling and other uses of state trust lands, sends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to public schools, universities and other beneficiaries across New Mexico.

House Democrats say a heavier investment in the state’s children is necessary to ensure they have a shot at success. 

Two Republicans — Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences and Luis Terrazas of Silver City — voted for the resolution, while two Democrats — Candie Sweetser of Deming and Harry Garcia of Grants — voted against it.

The resolution heads to the Senate. Given a change in the makeup of that 42-member body during the 2020 elections, advocates say the measure stands a chance for approval.

Some senators hope to amend the resolution to include additional funding for K-12 public education — a move that would have been unheard of in past years. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, a retired educator who has been a proponent of public school funding, said she expects proposals that would bump up the 1 percent draw to 1.25 percent or 1.5 percent.

“The Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit makes it clear there are many other needs to be funded for at-risk students,” Stewart said, referring to a judge’s landmark ruling in 2018 that requires the state to increase its investments in education to improve services for groups of New Mexico kids who are most at risk of falling behind or dropping out.

“If we add in funding for these other issues, I believe we have more of a chance of passing it,” Stewart said of HJR 1.

In past years, the legislation has stalled in the important Senate Finance Committee, then led by a conservative Democrat from Deming who earned the nickname Dr. No, in part because of his opposition to efforts to use the permanent fund to pay for early childhood programs. At least one year, former Sen. John Arthur Smith refused to even give the bill a hearing in his committee.

Smith and other conservative Democrats, most of whom lost their reelection bids in 2020, never allowed the measure to get a vote on the Senate floor.

The new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Democrat George Muñoz of Gallup, has sided at times with some of his more conservative colleagues. But he confirmed Friday that HJR 1 will get a hearing if it is sent to his committee. He has not asked other members whether they favor the measure.

As for Muñoz, “As long as they are getting K-12 funding in there, I’m good [with the idea],” he said.

The committee’s vice chairman, Democrat Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces, said he believes it’s important to prioritize funding for early childhood education, but he is “open to K-12 funding as well. I want to see the details. I’m open-minded.”

Stewart said the resolution must pass through at least two Senate committees before reaching the full Senate for a vote.

“It could go to Senate Rules [Committee] and then Senate Finance, or it could go to Senate Education and then Senate Finance,” she said.

The state has allocated about $420.5 million to early childhood education in the current fiscal year, said Elizabeth Groginsky, Cabinet secretary of the state’s new Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

Of that, she said, some $193.5 million comes from the state’s general fund. The rest comes from federal and other sources, she said.

Advocates say HJR 1 could raise another $180 million to $190 million per year for pre-K and other programs for infants and children.

“We want all families and young children to have access to these programs,” Groginsky said shortly just as the House passed the resolution.

She and her agency will be watching how the resolution plays out in the Senate “very hopefully,” she added.