Legislators are trying, once again, to gain access to the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund to support early childhood education. Past attempts have been blocked by conservative lawmakers for years, but many think a new bill has a chance in a newly refreshed state Senate.
House Joint Resolution 1—Permanent Fund For Early Childhood, was introduced last week by Rep. Javier Martínez (D-Albuquerque) and co-sponsor Rep. Moe Maestas (D-Albuquerque). The resolution would amend the State Constitution to open the Land Grant Permanent Fund to a 1 percent withdrawal that would go to programs for early childhood education.
The Land Grant Permanent Fund is also known as the Permanent School Fund. It was established when the state was admitted to the union in 1912. It now collects revenues from leases and royalties collected from gas and oil companies that have operations in the state. It’s the state’s largest permanent fund and provides over three-quarters of a billion dollars in benefits to New Mexico’s public schools, universities and other beneficiaries every year. The New Mexico State Land Office is in charge of it.
The fund reportedly had a balance of over $20.8 billion in November. Each year 5 percent of the fund’s rolling five-year average is taken out to fund public schools across the state. The proposed budget amendment would increase the annual distribution of the Land Grant Permanent Fund by 1 percentage point to 6 percent. Some of the revenue would go to early childhood education programs like pre-K. Some would fund parental education and home-visit programs.
“This is a fund that belongs to the people of New Mexico, and it is a modest investment in the most transformative place that it can be made—with children, starting out at birth and through pre-K,” Martínez recently told the Santa Fe New Mexican. He said the resolution could infuse childhood programs with an extra $180 million per year.
Martínez and Maestas have had no trouble pushing the resolution through the House in the past. Maestas has introduced similar constitutional amendments every year since 2013. They’ve passed in the House six times. But conservative Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have allowed the bill to die in committee time and time again. Opponents of the bill have argued that, while early childhood education might need more funding, the Land Grant Permanent Fund isn’t robust enough to handle more outlets. The appropriateness of the resolution has been questioned as well, since the Permanent School Fund was arguably intended to be spent on students in grade school and above.
Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt (R-Rio Rancho) told reporters he opposes the resolution because it will strain the permanent fund. According to the Albuquerque Journal, an analysis by staff at the Legislative Finance Committee found that the fund would continue to grow at 6 percent, albeit at a slower pace.
Brandt also said the state is supplying enough funds to early childhood education programs. “I don’t think the problem is money,” Brandt said. “We have dumped a ton of money into that program, rightfully so.”
Last February House Bill 83—Early Childhood Education and Care Fund, was signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. It created a trust fund to pay for early childhood programs. The trust fund was set up so that the state’s oil and gas revenue surplus would flow into it each year until it reaches $1 billion dollars. At that time the fund will be distributed to different programs. While similar to HJR 1, this fund was asking for much more conservative amounts and was embraced by legislators who opposed last year’s version of the former.
Times have changed since last year, though. Republicans are currently outnumbered in both legislative chambers, and a number of centrist and conservative Democrats were ousted last year in favor of younger, more progressive candidates. Former State Senator John Arthur Smith (D-Deming), the chair of the Finance Committee, for example, voted in favor of HB 84 last year and opposed HJR 1. He resigned in December after losing his bid for reelection.
In light of these congressional changes, proponents of the constitutional amendment are much more optimistic for its chances this year.
“We’re in a much better position,” said Maestas. “People are much more comfortable now than they ever have been with regard to the proposal.”
The resolution also has an optical advantage this year. With many more eyes watching its progress and the publicity surrounding its re-introduction, public support could be much more vocal than during previous attempts. Lawmakers have also had plenty of time to analyze the bill and make sure it’s ready to pass. Maestas said it was the “most thoroughly vetted” bill of the session, and Martínez claims to have received calls of support from members of the Senate. He seems convinced that the resolution will make it to a floor vote.
Sen. Jacob Candelaria (D-Albuquerque) warned the bill’s supporters not to relax, however. “There are a lot of practical questions that need to be asked and answered,” he told reporters, reminding them that the bill has died without much debate during past sessions.
If the resolution passes through both chambers, it will be up to voters to decide whether the constitutional amendment will be made. If passed, the state may conduct a special election by mail or add the proposed amendment to the municipal election already scheduled for November. The resolution has been pre-filed in the House, where it currently awaits its fate.