If this isn’t “dire straits” then I don’t know what is

by Amber Wallin
December 16, 2015

A New Mexico senator says he’s “not a fan of tapping the permanent fund unless the state is in dire straits” in the recent story about using a tiny percentage of the state’s school permanent fund to expand early childhood care and learning programs (Santa Fe New Mexican, Dec. 2, 2015). It begs the question—exactly what would constitute “dire straits” in the senator’s opinion?

New Mexico already has the highest rate of child poverty in the nation, is next-to-last in child well-being and in math and reading scores, and has the third highest rate of child hunger. We have the resources to fix this, but some legislators don’t want to let the voters decide whether this state of affairs qualifies as dire enough to make the investment.

And it’s not just the kids who are suffering. Our post-recession job growth is worst in the nation—despite the big corporate tax cuts handed out by the Legislature that were supposed to “create” jobs. We have the highest rate of long-term unemployment, our violent crime rate is high, and every week we read another news story about how our best and brightest are fleeing the state for better opportunities elsewhere. Can it get more dire than that?

To be fair, another state senator also made statements in that article that ignored the overwhelming reality of our crisis of child well-being. One said it’s not “fiscally responsible to hit the permanent fund.” It’s a 15 billion dollar fund. That’s billion with a B. What’s more, in the five years since lawmakers first discussed using the fund to expand early childhood care and learning, it has grown by a whopping $5 billion. And that’s after losing a couple billion bucks in the Stock Market crash. Our child poverty rate has been growing too. In 2010 it was 24 percent. Now it’s 30 percent—the worst rate in the nation.

So what would have happened if lawmakers had allowed voters to pass the amendment to take 1.5 percent from the fund back then? We could have expanded pre-kindergarten to every single 4-year-old in the state. Not only that, the fund would still be worth some $14.5 billion and we’d already be reaping the benefits of increased investments in our children’s education.

It would have been a more fiscally responsible thing to do, too. According to a report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), the estimated rate of return on state-funded pre-K is 18.1 percent. That sure sounds better than the 11 percent average growth we’ve gotten on the school permanent fund over the years, and it’s way better than the 4.77 percent return rate cited in the article.

In case you’re thinking it’s a shame some lawmakers didn’t know about those great returns on our NM Pre-K investment when they first began to shoot down legislation to fully fund it from the school permanent fund, allow me to set your mind at ease. That report was released in 2009. They knew.

The data are there—and not just in the report cited above. There have been multiple longitudinal studies and several nationally regarded economists have said it’s the best investment states can make.

So let’s be honest here. New Mexico is dead last or near dead last in the nation on a number of troubling indicators. We’re in dire straits. And we’re sitting on a massive permanent fund that can make a difference for our state’s most valuable resource—our youngest children. Data and research show that the smartest investment we can make is in our kids. We need to fully fund home visiting, high-quality child care, and pre-K in order to turn child well-being around in New Mexico. The rainy day is upon us. It is up to us to demand that lawmakers take action on this issue now before another five years slip by.

Amber Wallin, MPA, is Kids Count director for New Mexico Voices for Children.