United Way Early Learning Center at Kaune celebrates grand opening of pre-K program

Students at the United Way Early Learning Center at Kaune watch organizers prepare to cut a ribbon in celebration of a new pre-K program in 2018.

Two Albuquerque Democrats are renewing a push for an amendment to the state constitution that would direct funds from a multibillion-dollar state land endowment to early childhood services.

State Reps. Antonio Maestas and Javier Martínez have filed a joint resolution that would ask New Mexico voters to approve an annual distribution of 1 percent of the five-year average of the Land Grant Permanent Fund to early childhood education and care.

This is the eighth straight year such a resolution has been proposed. The measure has stalled in each of the last seven legislative sessions, largely over concerns on both sides of the aisle about depleting the endowment, which draws revenue from oil and gas leases and other public land use fees, and benefits public schools.

In March, three Democrats on the Senate Rules Committee — Clemente Sanchez of Grants, Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces and Bill Tallman of Albuquerque — joined four Republicans to block the measure from moving forward on a 7-4 vote to table it.

Under the current proposal, House Joint Resolution 1, the amendment would generate about $175 million per year for early education and child care, according to a legislative analysis. It comes as the state is shifting many of its early education and child care programs to a newly created department focused on children from birth to age 5.

“This is a long time in the making. At $19.5 billion, our land grant fund is one of the largest in the world, yet we have the highest need in the country in terms of child well-being,” Martínez said of HJR 1.

“With those dynamics lining up and hopefully a fair hearing in [the Senate Finance Committee], voters should have the chance to approve this new revenue source for early childhood education.”

But the amendment resolution faces competition this year from an alternate funding source for early childhood education that has support from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Sen. John Arthur Smith, a powerful Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and the joint interim Legislative Finance Committee.

Smith, who opposed efforts to increase withdrawals from the Land Grant Permanent Fund, and Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, are sponsoring a House bill that would appropriate $320 million from the state’s general fund to start a new endowment to generate revenue for early childhood services.

“I think there is great interest and great motivation in funding early childhood services, but the constitutional amendment may be a bit more aggressive than some people feel is necessary,” said Katherine Freeman, president and CEO of United Way of Santa Fe County, which focuses on early childhood services. “... For now, I think the endowment fund is a good place to start.”

The proposed endowment would generate $20 million in its first year.

In August, state Finance and Administration Secretary Olivia Padilla-Jackson said the state could allocate around $300 million a year to build the fund to $1 billion within three years, and that it could generate $50 million annually.

Tripp Stelnicki, A spokesman for the governor, said Lujan Grisham is supporting the new endowment because it is backed by Smith.

“The governor is enthusiastic and optimistic about the Early Childhood Trust Fund, the one-time $320M appropriation she has proposed that will become self-sustaining and create a permanent positive cycle of investment,” Stelnicki said in an email.

Smith said he does not see a possibility of both funding measures moving forward.

“We’re building a new trust fund so that when oil and gas windfalls go away, we still have revenue,” he said.

Maestas said, however, that he believes the larger state land endowment is a better funding source for services for the state’s youngest residents.

“If we take a billion dollars of cash reserves and put it in a separate fund, it perpetuates a poverty mentality,” he said. “I ask the governor not to perpetuate this poverty mentality. Instead of saving for the day the world ends, we need to educate our young people to create a new world.”

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