by Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican
January 31, 2017

State legislators split along party lines Monday in advancing a proposed constitutional amendment that would use some of the $15 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to help pay for early childhood education and other public education programs.

The House Education Committee voted 7-6 for a plan to fund pre-K programs with an extra 1 percent from the endowment. Democrats supported the measure and Republicans opposed it.

“Fifteen-billion-plus dollars — that’s almost richer than Donald Trump,” said Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, in voicing her support for the measure.

Groups such as New Mexico Voices for Children have urged lawmakers for years to use a larger share of the money that flows into the investment account from oil, gas and mineral extraction on state lands.

The proposal, if approved by lawmakers this year and then by voters in the 2018 general election, would supply $39 million for early childhood education and another $91 million for K-12 public schools in 2020. Legislators would be able to stop the payments if the endowment dropped below $12 billion.

Republican lawmakers said the amendment’s wording is muddy when it comes to implementation of programs, such as hiring qualified teachers, and how schools would fend for themselves if the endowment shrank to less than the $12 billion threshold.

Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, expressed his frustration by telling some 30 people who spoke in favor of the bill: “Why not disburse all permanent funds to you folks and we won’t have to talk about it anymore.”

Monday’s committee debate, which lasted more than two hours, continued a years-long discussion on how to expand early childhood education.

National studies show the benefits of such programs, often described as pre-K because they are aimed at children from infancy to age 5. The upside includes improved reading and math scores in elementary school, better high-school graduation rates and even a drop in juvenile crime and incarceration.

But Republican lawmakers and GOP Gov. Susana Martinez have repeatedly said the endowment should be off limits. The land grant fund was established to help finance schools and other government operations after extraction industries dry up.

“If you think it’s raining now, when revenues from oil and gas stop, there will be a storm coming,” said Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan.

One man in the audience, who said he is a father and a former educator, told the committee that they should not touch the fund. Parents, he said, need to take responsibility for the early education of their children.

But Joe Callan, a former Marine who said he is the father of three children in Albuquerque, countered that suggestion.

“I can teach my children how to dismantle a machine gun,” he said. “I can teach them how to take a hill. I don’t know how to teach them to read.”

A Legislative Finance Committee report said using an extra 1 percent from the endowment would come with a price by negatively affecting the state’s ability to invest that money, among other outcomes. But advocates for early childhood education say the state can make no better investment than in the education of young children.

Proceeds from the Land Grant Permanent Fund already are used for state education, most notably K-12 schools. The endowment contributed more than $600 million to public schools last year.

Even if both the House of Representatives and Senate approve the joint resolution — which does not require the signature of the governor — it still has to be approved by Congress.

Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Javier Martinez, both Democrats from Albuquerque, are sponsoring the proposal. It goes next to the House Labor and Economic Development Committee.

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