Preschool funding proposal stalls in New Mexico Senate

March 5, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A proposal to increase spending on early childhood education from a multibillion-dollar state trust stalled Monday in the state Senate and appeared unlikely to advance this year.

The proposed constitutional amendment would have funneled about $148 million a year from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund into early childhood education programs including preschool and home-visiting programs that help parents care for infants. The initiative won House approval before a Senate panel on Monday voted 7-4 to set aside the initiative with fewer than two weeks left in the annual session.

Lawmakers are grappling with a court order to invest more in proven educational programs amid findings that the state is failing to provide an adequate education to children from low-income and minority families. A draft state spending plan would increase annual spending on public education by about $480 million, but many legislators worry the state could struggle to maintain that commitment in future years if the state’s oil sector were to falter or if a recession hits.

Opponents of the constitutional amendment feared the plan would erode investment earnings that have helped the fund grow to $17 billion even as it pays out annual dividends to public schools.

Democratic Reps. Antonio Maestas and Javier Martinez of Albuquerque urged the Senate to put the constitutional amendment to a statewide vote, noting it would provide a dedicated source of funding as lawmakers contemplate the creation of a new state agency dedicated early-childhood programs.

“We can’t get the time back for the kids in this state that grow up in horrible circumstances with domestic violence, with poverty,” Maestas said. “We can’t get it back, and I urge this committee to keep this on the table.”

Advocates for increasing withdrawals from the Land Grant Permanent fund include Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who sought to keep the idea alive on Monday by endorsing a scaled-back proposal to increase trust withdrawals by half a percentage point — instead of the 1-point increase in the stalled legislation.

She called the new proposal from Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque a “reasonable pinch” from the trust that already provides more than $800 million a year to public schools, universities and hospitals.

Democratic Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque said it was infuriating to see the Legislature abandon new avenues for preschool funding, even as it seeks to set aside general fund reserves of about $1.5 billion as a precaution against future economic downturn. He said the decision would “just let the kids sink.”

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