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New Mexico asks federal permission for child spending

December 16, 2021 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Most of New Mexico’s congressional delegation has asked Capitol Hill for permission to invest more money into early childhood programs from its resource wealth endowment.

Any changes to the endowment require permission from Capitol Hill, and both of New Mexico’s U.S. Senators and two of its Representatives, all Democrats, announced legislation Friday to boost the amount that can be withdrawn from the $25 billion fund. Sen. Martin Heinrich and Rep. Melanie Stansbury are sponsoring legislation requesting that the change be allowed.

As a condition for statehood, granted in 1912, the federal government created the endowment to generate an allowance for the majority-Latino, mostly Spanish-speaking territory. Most of the money comes from oil and gas extraction, as well as taxes from mining and logging.

Law restricts the withdrawals to 5% per year, and virtually all of the fund is earmarked for universities and K-12 schools. Prekindergarten schools and other services for children under 5 can’t receive any of the funds.

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The bill would grant permission for the state to increase withdrawals to 6.25%. It would add most of the increase to early childhood education programs, including pre-K.

New Mexico voters would also have to approve the measure.

State Legislators have cleared the way for voters to consider the measure next fall. Democratic lawmakers have advocated for years to change how to spend money from the endowment and to spend more of it.

They say growth of the fund has far outpaced inflation thanks to rich oil revenues and profitable market investments, and New Mexico’s disproportionately impoverished children need help now.

“Too many of our kids are showing up to kindergarten so far behind their classmates that they can’t catch up even over time,” said Heinrich, who sponsored the request in the Senate.

Around a third of New Mexico third graders are proficient in reading, according to testing before and during the pandemic. Math proficiency is often lower.

Some State Republican lawmakers have argued against the changes, saying the increased withdrawals could deplete the fund.

They point out that the main source of revenue for the fund — fossil fuel extraction — is under assault by pro-environment efforts at the state and federal levels as the world moves away from the industry to address global warming.

“There’s no question that our Land Grant Permanent Fund is funded primarily by revenues that come from natural resource extraction,” said Stansbury, sponsor of the legislation in the House.

She wants the state to grow tech, tourism and other industries instead.

A spokesman for the lone Republican in New Mexico’s delegation, Rep. Yvette Herrell, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.