AP NEWS

Advocates hopeful legislators will act on grim N.M. child well-being report

January 15, 2019

A new report on child welfare offers a deeper look at some grim statistics for New Mexico, which fell to last in the nation last year on a key state-by-state assessment of the well-being of children and families.

“This is the time to go bold or go home,” says the 2018 New Mexico Kids Count Data Book, scheduled for release Tuesday.

“Overall, I would say the report is not good,” said James Jimenez, executive director of Albuquerque-based New Mexico Voices for Children, a nonprofit child advocacy group that prepared the report.

But Jimenez added Voices for Children is hopeful that with a new governor and a wave of new Democratic legislators in office, it will see a swell of support in this year’s legislative session for policy changes the organization believes will boost child well-being in the long term.

“One of the things that I’m most excited about is that we have so many women who are in the Legislature now and a governor who is a parent,” he said, referring to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a mother of two daughters.

He also cited a ruling by a state district judge that mandates a sharp increase in funding for public education.

The New Mexico Kids Count report reiterates some data in the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation’s national Data Book for 2018, released in June, which ranked the state 50th overall for how its children are faring, 50th in education, 49th in economic well-being and 48th when it comes to health measures.

There are some bright spots in the new report: a declining teen birth rate, a rising graduation rate and a health insurance rate for kids that has held steady at about 95 percent.

However, Jimenez said, for almost a decade, New Mexico has been “moving in the wrong direction,” particularly when it comes to economic policies — such as corporate tax cuts and carve-outs, and a heavy reliance on the boom-and-bust oil and gas industry.

In addition to restructuring the tax system, Voices for Children is proposing dozens of policy changes, including family and child tax credit increases, a raise in the minimum wage to $12 an hour, expanded eligibility for child care assistance and heavy investments in education.

The organization backs a long-debated move to use revenue from the state’s multibillion-dollar Land Grant Permanent Fund for a massive expansion in prekindergarten programs.

This is an effort Lujan Grisham has supported.

Her $7.1 billion budget, unveiled late last week, includes a $500 million increase for public education and a $60 million increase in pre-K funds from the permanent fund. It also calls for a major expansion of K-5 Plus, a summer program for low-income public school students in grades K-5; a minimum wage increase; and an expanded Working Families Tax Credit — to name just a few initiatives aligned with Kids Count recommendations.

“As far as child well-bring in this state,” said Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki, “it’s at the forefront of the governor’s proposals. … It’s at the top of every list.”

The state Legislature, in its $7 billion budget released Monday, would increase education spending by about $417 million.

Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools and a former head of New Mexico Voices for Children, said one important takeaway from the new Kids Count report is that education spending in the state has not risen above 2008 levels.

She’s optimistic about the proposed budget increases for education, García said. But she said, “I think the question will be how much is enough.”