March 19, 2021

In landmark vote, effort to increase early childhood education, K-12 funds passes Senate

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

State Rep. Moe Maestas sat quietly on a metal folding chair, his hands clasped together, as he watched the three-hour debate play out around him on the Senate floor.

At stake was hundreds of millions of dollars for early childhood and public education programs. 

As the call to vote came around 5 p.m. Thursday, Maestas began twiddling his thumbs, tapping his right foot. He had been waiting for this moment for more than five years.

Capitol insiders might say the outcome was never in question.

The 42-member state Senate voted 26-16 in favor of a ballot question asking New Mexico voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the state to tap into its now $22 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to create an annual revenue stream for prekindergarten and K-12 programs.

After the vote, Maestas, who co-sponsored the effort with Rep. Javier Martínez, a fellow Albuquerque Democrat, said, “This is a victory for the children of New Mexico. It’s not just about the money. This allows New Mexicans to take control of their future.”

Watching the debate play out via Zoom from his home, Martínez shed tears after the Senate vote.

“I’m so happy for every child in New Mexico,” he said. “I’m proud of our Legislature.”

For the two lawmakers and fellow supporters of an effort to boost funding for pre-K and other programs for the state’s youngest children, the Senate vote was a milestone in a long-fought battle. Maestas and Martínez had been leading the fight for five years. While the House generally supported the effort in the past, the legislation consistently failed to gain traction in the Senate. Earlier efforts by other lawmakers, dating back about a decade, also were unsuccessful.

Supporters of prekindergarten, home-visiting programs and high-quality child care contend such services help families succeed economically and pay off down the line in higher academic achievement and graduation rates.

They have advocated for years to use the more than century-old endowment to invest in New Mexico children. But critics have pushed back with concerns about depleting a fund that is intended to last in perpetuity.

Because the resolution involves a constitutional amendment, it does not require the governor’s signature — although Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said she supports it.

Still, a final victory is not assured. Advocates must persuade voters to approve the measure in the November 2022 general election.

The proposed constitutional amendment calls for a 1.25 percent withdrawal each year from the state land endowment.

If it passes, 60 percent of the money — about $127 million by current standards — would go toward early childhood programs. The other 40 percent — some $84 million — would go to public schools.

Martínez and Maestas said their resolution might have succeeded this year because of their willingness to cooperate with Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, who proposed an amendment during a Senate committee hearing earlier this week to include more funds for K-12 schools, which draw hundreds of millions from the fund each year.

The resolution initially called for a new 1 percent annual draw only for early education.

Candelaria argued, however, the state is still struggling to meet the mandates of a 2018 court ruling that found New Mexico is not providing enough resources for children in high-risk groups. More funding is necessary, he said, to extend the school year, increase teacher salaries and enhance learning opportunities for those kids.

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, who has sponsored such legislation in the past, praised his colleagues’ perseverance in seeing the measure through to success.

“It’s turning the ship around in a really big way,” he said during the Senate debate. “It’s a big decision, I get it. We’re all kind of scared of it.”

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, warned of the risks. “Each time we tap into it, we harm that compound interest,” he said of the endowment. “Each time we do that, sometime in the future we are somehow harming children.”

A fiscal impact report on the resolution said the State Investment Council, which oversees the fund, estimated the new distributions over 25 years at $5.3 billion, “while lost financial earnings on those distributions would be about $10 billion.”

The resolution includes a provision that says if the permanent fund were to drop below $17 billion, the withdrawal would be halted. It also gives the Legislature oversight on how to appropriate the new funds.

Sharer and other Republicans, including Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, and Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Albuquerque, spoke about the need to teach parents how help their children succeed in school and in life. That’s the investment the state should make, they argued.

“Money will not do that,” Pirtle said. “Only loving adults, guardians, can do that.”

Candelaria called Thursday’s action the “end of this road” for the resolution. 

“It’s at this point that our power ends,” he said, adding the power is now in the public’s hands “to determine how they wish to invest their dollars.”