U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, both New Mexico Democrats, announced Wednesday they have introduced federal legislation that would give the congressional go-ahead needed for the state to tap into its multibillion-dollar Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education.

Congressional approval and support from New Mexico voters in the November 2022 general election are both required for a new state constitutional amendment to take effect, allowing the state to withdraw an additional 1.25 percent of the endowment’s five-year average to fund early child programs and beef up revenues for public K-12 schools.

The Land Grant Permanent Fund, largely fueled by investment revenues and oil and gas fees on state lands, recently was valued at more than $25 billion, said state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque.

The move would pump roughly $127 million annually into early childhood education, and area advocates say is chronically underfunded statewide. It would also allot $84.7 million more to K-12 public schools, which already receive hundreds of millions of dollars each year from the state land endowment. The proposed amendment said the withdrawal would not happen in any fiscal year in which the investment fund’s five-year average dropped below $17 billion.

State lawmakers moved earlier this year to get the amendment question on ballots.

“This constitutional amendment will provide the stability needed to further grow, improve and maintain our early childhood system,” said CHI St. Joseph’s Children Public Policy Director Jessa Cowdrey during a Wednesday news conference. “Stability that, at times, is lacking with our oil revenue roller coaster and the ebb and flow of federal funding.”

The Albuquerque-based nonprofit has long favored the proposal, and released poll results earlier this year showing 63 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats support the move.

The announcement of the new legislation, also supported by Democratic U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez and U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, is a decade in the making, Heinrich said at the news conference.

It comes as New Mexico continues to see a boom in the oil and gas industry.

While Stansbury called for the state to diversify its economy, she added: “So, in the short term we need to make the best use of these funds. And we have been so blessed and fortunate to have the largess of one of the largest single growths in income from oil and gas revenues over the last three to four years.”

The new legislation coincides with the recent publication of the Early Childhood Education and Care Department’s new four-year financial plan, which predicts large gaps between projected expenses and revenues as federal pandemic relief funds run dry after 2023, even with declining birthrates.

The plan projects a shortfall of up to $504.98 million in fiscal year 2026, when expenses are estimated at $943.28 million.

The plan also outlines the need to raise low pay among industry workers, who are largely women; improve quality of services; and identify the “true cost” of providing programs for young children.

“Our more high-risk families with younger children are going to need deeper and more intense intervention, and that’s going to cost more,” Early Child Education Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky said in an interview Wednesday. “We have very few children who fall into the ‘low risk’ in our prenatal to 3 [years old] populations.”

Groginsky said child care services, home visits and preschool programs don’t reach all families in need.

Federal funds the department is using to expand family eligibility for child care assistance are scheduled to sunset in 2024, and Groginsky hopes other sources will help extend the expansion — including the Land Grant Permanent Fund.

In 2020, state lawmakers approved a permanent trust fund for the new early childhood department with a $300 million initial investment, which will bring in $30 million in fiscal year 2023.

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