A proposal to boost early childhood education programs by tapping into a multibillion-dollar state investment fund is moving closer to a possible statewide vote

by Morgan Lee, Associated Press
Feb. 9, 2018

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A legislative proposal to boost New Mexico’s preschool and daycare funding by an estimated $150 million a year inched closer on Friday to a possible statewide vote, as a Senate panel endorsed tapping into a state sovereign wealth fund.

The Senate Education Committee recommended approval of a constitutional amendment that would increase distributions from the state’s $17 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to expand preschool, daycare and home visits by social workers to parents of infants and toddlers.

Full Senate approval would put the measure on the ballot in November elections to be decided by voters across a state where rates of student academic proficiency and high school graduation trail most of the country. The proposal moves next to the Senate Finance Committee where it could encounter opposition from fiscally conservative Democrats.

“We’re at a time when the status quo is not working,” said Democratic Rep. Javier Martinez, one sponsor of the amendment. “This is a way to break through.”

Critics say the plan risks drawing too much money each year from a fund seen as a trust for future generations. Supporters say a substantial increase in state spending is needed to improve and expand early education.

On Friday, about two dozen proponents of the constitutional amendment formed a line across the Senate floor, one-by-one urging lawmakers to let voters decide whether tap into state savings. The proposal would increase annual distributions by 1 percentage point to about 6 percent of the Land Grant Permanent Fund.

“To the opponents who say we need to protect the fund, I say what about protecting our kids,” said Bill Jordan of New Mexico Voices for Children.

Opponents of the proposal include GOP Gov. Susana Martinez and Libertarian State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, whose agency channels state earnings from oil, gas and mineral leases to the land grant fund.

Dunn, who is campaigning for U.S. Senate, cautioned that state revenues from oil and natural gas will someday taper off as society moves toward renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, limiting growth of the land grant fund.

Chris Narkum of the New Mexico Public Education Department highlighted proposed increases in general fund spending on early education programs. The governor has recommended a $25 million increase for the coming fiscal year.

“Every time we get into this (savings) fund we are hurting the future of this state,” said Republican Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho, who voted against the constitutional amendment in committee. “I think we can keep investing from the general fund and meet that need.”

Proponents of the amendment say that general fund spending cannot come close to meeting demands for publicly funded daycare and preschool among low-income families.

Copyright 2018, Associated Press (https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/new-mexico/articles/2018-02-09/new-mexico-senate-braces-for-debate-on-preschool-funding)