Gov. Lujan Grisham vows to keep pushing for early childhood funding

March 16, 2019 GMT

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, holding her grandaughter Avery Stewart, 3, addresses members of the Senate Finance Committee during a Friday hearing on a plan to boost early childhood spending. The committee did not ultimately vote on the bill. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE -- Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham got a hearing Friday on a high-profile plan to increase New Mexico early childhood funding ? but she didn’t get the votes.

The Democratic governor made a personal appeal to members of a key Senate committee to pass a proposal to take more money from the state’s largest permanent fund to expand prekindergarten and other similar programs.

But the Senate Finance Committee did not vote on the bill, likely signaling its death knell for the 60-day session that ends today.

Lujan Grisham, who testified to lawmakers with her three-year old granddaughter Avery on her lap, said she won’t stop fighting for her goal of getting 80 percent of New Mexico’s three and four-year olds enrolled in prekindergarten programs by 2024.

“If they’re thinking of other revenue streams ... I’m open to anything they’re willing to propose,” the governor told reporters after Friday’s hearing.

She added her testimony was not intended to put political pressure on senators, saying, “It’s not about politics for me ? it’s about meeting the needs of these families.”

Backers of the plan to take more money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund ? valued at $17.7 billion ? and spend it on home visiting, child-care assistance and prekindergarten programs have been able to win approval in the House in recent years, but have been stymied in the Senate.

Advocacy groups have in past paid for billboards targeting moderate Senate Democrats, some of whom have joined Republicans in opposing the proposals, but those efforts don’t appear to have worked.

Some senators said Friday they support the idea of increasing early childhood spending, but not using the permanent fund as the vehicle to accomplish that.

“The permanent fund that we’ve got is a working fund,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the finance committee’s chairman.

The permanent fund, which gets funding from certain oil and natural gas royalties and investment gains, is distributing more than $780 million this year for public schools and other designated beneficiaries.

Increasing the distribution rate from the fund by 0.5 percentage points ? from 5 percent to 5.5 percent ? as proposed by the bill pushed by the governor would generate an additional $75 million per year by 2022, which could be spent on prekindergarten programs statewide.

That proposal, Senate Bill 671, was brought forward by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, after a different measure ? calling for a larger 1 percentage point increase in the distribution rate ? was tabled by the Senate Rules Committee earlier this month.

Total New Mexico spending on child care assistance, home visiting, prekindergarten and other programs has gone from $136.5 million in 2012 to $313.2 million in the current budget year.

But the governor said only about one quarter of three and four-year olds in the state ? roughly 12,000 out of 50,000 ? are currently enrolled in prekindergarten programs.

“We have not done a good job as a state of putting together an adequate early childhood system,” Lujan Grisahm said Friday.

She has already signed into law a separate bill creating a new Early Childhood Education and Care Department in state government in an attempt to consolidate the various programs offered by the state.

But taking more out of the Land Grant Permanent Fund has proven to be a tougher political fight, as opponents have long expressed concern such an idea would undermine the fund’s long-term health.

“When we take too much out of it, we can hurt the growth of the corpus,” said Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, during Friday’s hearing.

Lujan Grisham, who took office in January, has contested that assertion, calling on lawmakers to take a “responsible pinch” out of the fund.

She and other backers also argue a cash infusion into programs benefiting the state’s youngest residents is needed now, given that New Mexico is grappling with chronically high poverty rates and a string of high-profile child abuse cases.

While the issue may be settled for this year’s session, Lujan Grisham made it clear she won’t let it fade away.

“I don’t want to close the door, I want the opportunity to keep making our case,” the governor said after Friday’s hearing.