In some ways, it was a historic legislative moment.
The Senate Finance Committee—renowned as being the morgue for repeated efforts to draw permanent fund money for early childhood education—held a hearing Thursday to discuss that proposal, known as House Joint Resolution 1.
But the committee did not vote on the legislation. Instead, as committee Chairman George Muñoz explained, the hearing was intended to educate members on the initiative before taking further action.
What that action will be remains unclear, although compromise and change seem likely, based on Thursday’s testimony.
The resolution has become one of the most vetted and publicized in recent years. HJR 1 would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing for a 1 percent annual distribution from the $22 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund — almost $200 million a year — to pay for services for New Mexico’s youngest children.
Critics, including those who served on the Senate Finance Committee in the past, have said any drawdown from that fund could hurt its future stability. And because it helps fund K-12 schools, they argue it also could hurt the public education system.
The bill’s main sponsors, Reps. Moe Maestas and Javier Martínez, both Albuquerque Democrats, spoke of the potential the extra money has to improve the well-being of young children in a state that often ranks at the bottom for education and economic measures.
And, they told the committee, the 1 percent draw would be based on a rolling five-year average, meaning it could be less than the $170 million estimated price tag.
This is at least the fifth year that such a proposal has been pitched. In past years, those efforts have stalled in the Senate, usually at the doorstep of the Senate Finance Committee, which has either tabled the proposal or not given it a hearing.
The effort met some resistance again Thursday. Muñoz, D-Gallup, and Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said they could not support the resolution as written because it does not include funding for the state’s K-12 program. “We will have to make some changes to this,” Muñoz told the sponsors.
Others were more supportive. Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, told the bill’s sponsors that as a school counselor she understands the need to invest in children at a young age. She seemed enthused about the proposal.
Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, took a more contrarian view, questioning whether there is any proof that additional funding for schools leads to higher success rates.
Elizabeth Groginsky, secretary of the state Early Childhood Education and Care Department, said her agency’s budget is over $410 million a year. But it could cost up to $500 million more per year to serve the many children who could benefit from pre-K programming. “We have a real opportunity here,” she said of the resolution.
Maestas told the committee the state has an opportunity to change the future for children who would benefit from such programming. Many studies say pre-K efforts lead to higher academic achievement and graduation rates and less remedial class work for students who take part in them.
Charles Sallee, deputy director of the Legislative Finance Committee, told the committee that state studies show students benefit from such programs. “It’s not enough to close the achievement gap alone, but we are seeing positive results from our pre-K investments,” he said.
Muñoz concluded Thursday’s hearing with a vow to give the bill another hearing — but only after committee members and the sponsors “sit down and talk.”