Bill to tap land grant permanent fund for early childhood education clears hurdle

Advocates behind a years-long effort to draw more money for early childhood programs from a multibillion-dollar state investment fund celebrated a major triumph Tuesday. Legislation is headed to the Senate floor for the first time following a 7-4 vote of approval by the Senate Finance Committee — known for stalling similar legislation dating back to […]

Bill to tap land grant permanent fund for early childhood education clears hurdle

Advocates behind a years-long effort to draw more money for early childhood programs from a multibillion-dollar state investment fund celebrated a major triumph Tuesday.

Legislation is headed to the Senate floor for the first time following a 7-4 vote of approval by the Senate Finance Committee — known for stalling similar legislation dating back to 2014.

After Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, a sponsor of House Joint Resolution 1, said he felt “fantastic, man, fantastic.”

“It’s amazing — the committee finally held a hearing on it, they looked at the figures and realized the fund can handle it,” Maestas said in an interview.

The Senate Finance Committee insisted on a compromise amendment that would increase the amount drawn from the now $22 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to provide additional support for K-12 schools, which already receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the endowment each year. Maestas and co-sponsor Javier Martinez, both Albuquerque Democrats, agreed to the change.

Maestas called the deal “a victory.”

HJR 1, which repeatedly has passed the full House, stands a chance of securing Senate approval and does not require the governor’s signature — though, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said she supports it.

Still, the measure would not be a done a done deal following a Senate vote. It would go before New Mexico voters in the November 2022 general election, asking them to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the state to increase the amount drawn each year from the investment fund and to expand its list of beneficiaries to preschools and other programs for the state’s youngest children.

Another obstacle for the legislation: a time crunch to get a vote on the Senate floor. The clock is ticking on this year’s legislative session, which ends at noon Saturday.

The resolution originally asked voters to approve a 1 percent annual draw for early education. The amendment approved Tuesday calls for a 1.25 percent draw, with 60 percent going to early childhood services and 40 percent going to the public school system.

Maestas and Martinez have pushed similar measures for five years straight without success, largely due to lawmakers’ concerns about depleting the more than century-old state land endowment, which mostly draws oil and gas fees and investment revenues. Other lawmakers led the effort in previous years.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told the sponsors, “You got something you never got before.”

Several Republicans on the committee said they support the resolution’s intent and the need for early childhood services. 

Still, Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, said “this is the wrong path to go down” to achieve those goals.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, introduced the amendment increasing the proposed withdrawal to 1.25 percent of the fund’s five-year average, for a total of some $212 million per year. The 40 percent for K-12 schools would  amount to about $84 million. That would leave about $127 million to support early childhood services, from prekindergarten classes to home visiting and child care programs. 

Candelaria said the additional public school funds are particularly important as the state continues to grapple with how to meet criteria in a 2018 state court ruling that found New Mexico is not providing enough resources for its at-risk students — the English-language learners, Native Americans, low-income kids and special education students who are lagging behind. 

“If we do not expand the at-risk services in K-12, if we do not extend the school year, if we do not make those investments in K-12, we do not see the benefits of early childhood programs sustained,” Candelaria said. 

His amendment also includes a provision that halts the 1.25 percent annual draw if the permanent fund drops below $17 billion.

Maestas, who at first opposed increasing the withdrawal in the resolution, said Tuesday that Candelaria’s amendment was acceptable because it takes the landmark Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit into account.

“We got locked into that narrative of 1 percent,” he told the committee members.

Allen Sánchez, president of the nonprofit Catholic charity group CHI St. Joseph’s Children and a supporter of the initiative to boost early education funds with endowment revenues since at least 2014, said he did not consider the amendment a compromise.

“We went in asking for 1 percent for the children of New Mexico,” he said. “We came out of there with a one and a quarter percent. How can you not be happy?”

Sen. Pete Campos, a Las Vegas Democrat, spoke in support of the bill, though he said he wanted assurances that policies would be in place to gauge how early childhood programs are paying off. Maestas and Martinez said the state already has those procedures in place. 

Campos said the only way to help young New Mexicans “is to make sure their brilliance is developed, and the only way to do that is to make sure that the resources are there.” 

If the state does not give students a sense of hope, he said, “you diffuse the human spirit, the human ability.”

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