by Russell Contreras, Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Democrats and a coalition of 40 groups said Tuesday they will push — again — for legislation that would tap into New Mexico’s permanent land fund to expand early childhood education.

The coalition announced new efforts to get the massive proposal to use a portion of the state’s $15 billion Land Grant Permanent School Fund to dramatically grow a program supporters say is needed to combat New Mexico’s persistent poverty rate.

The fund receives royalties from oil and natural gas production and other income from land given to the state by the federal government.

Under the education proposal, voters would decide if New Mexico should tap the fund amid resistance from some fiscally conservative lawmakers. If endorsed by the Legislature, the measure would be placed on the November general election ballot.

The fund currently pays out hundreds of millions of dollars each year for New Mexico K-12 and higher education programs. Backers of the new plan want an additional $160 million a year to be taken from the fund.

Supporters say the fund has grown from $11 billion to $15 billion, despite drops in oil and gas prices, since lawmakers tried in 2010 to introduce a measure to let voters decide whether the state should dip into the fund.

“Our children continue to enter kindergarten under-prepared and child well-being in New Mexico is one of the worst in the nation. We have been advocating for this legislation for five years,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque. “During this time the fund has survived a stock market crash, drop in oil prices and has grown by $4 billion.”

New Mexico also has seen a rise in production to offset the volatile market.

State Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the powerful Legislative Finance Committee, said the proposal is fiscally irresponsible because it would take so much money from the permanent fund.

Smith said he didn’t believe any proposal had a chance of passing the New Mexico Senate because fiscally conservative lawmakers are uncomfortable with the cost.

“It has nothing to do with the merits of the program,” said Smith, D-Deming. “But the 1.5 percent they are asking would put us in a dangerous position.”

The moderate Democrat also has warned that New Mexico could be headed into another financial storm thanks to growing spending pressures and slumping oil and gas prices that have resulted in weaker revenue.

Projections released in August showed the state would have more than a quarter-billion dollars in new revenue for the next fiscal year. Volatile oil and gas prices could cut into that, leaving lawmakers with fewer options as they begin hammering out budget priorities in advance of the 30-day session in January.

New revenue estimates will be released this month.

Proponents of expanding early childhood education in New Mexico say that the state must act.

“The more we spend at the playpen, the more we save at the state pen,” said Allen Sanchez, president and CEO of CHI St. Joseph’s Children, a community health organization in Albuquerque.

He said it would be fiscally irresponsible not to fund an early childhood expansion.

Veronica Garcia, executive director of the advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children, said research shows early childhood education programs benefit the economy in the long term. She also noted that the state regularly ranks near the bottom on child well-being.

“I’m at the point where I’m very angry” about the poverty rate in New Mexico, she said. “We are quick to provide tax breaks for corporations but are slow to do what’s right for our children.”