There’s a new kid on the block in New Mexico’s state budget, and it’s a big kid.

The state’s fledgling Early Childhood Education and Care Department, whose creation was mandated by legislation passed this year, is projecting a budget of $447.4 million for next budget year, which will be its first in existence.

Although officials had figured the department would become a major player in the budget, as it’s expected to see pieces of other agencies move under its umbrella, the request makes its budget significantly bigger than the $326.6 million projected by the Children, Youth & Families Department, and it nears the size of the Department of Health’s projected $589.6 million.

“The future strength of New Mexico depends upon the healthy development of our youngest citizens,” reads the new department’s budget request obtained by The New Mexican. “We can develop their full potential with the availability of high quality, accessible and affordable early care and education services.”

Under the legislation passed earlier this year, pre-K programs currently under several departments will move to the centralized early childhood department. Although it’s not scheduled to begin operating until July 1, the new agency submitted its budget request earlier this month along with all other state agencies, ahead of the legislative session in January.

It’s quite a lot of funding for an agency that doesn’t yet have leadership. A list of employees in the department’s budget request marked the majority of positions as vacant, including Cabinet secretary, deputy secretary, chief legal counsel and several division directors. Some roles, such as budget analyst, software programmer and IT application developer, had the names of employees next to them.

The Governor’s Office said Monday it was conducting a national search for a secretary, and that Mariana Padilla, director of the Children’s Cabinet, was working with other state departments on matters related to the agency in the interim.

“We look forward to announcing that appointment as soon as it’s been decided,” said Nora Sackett, a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office.

Overall, the new agency is requesting $256.1 million in transfers from the state’s general fund and $56.1 million from “other transfers,” while budgeting $130.3 million in federal money.

The Governor’s Office said Monday the new agency’s budget includes funding previously allocated to three other departments — CYFD, the Public Education Department and the Department of Health — as well as the hiring of new employees, office space and operational costs.

The department also seeks to expand a number of early childhood services the state administers.

For instance, it’s asking for an additional $26 million for child care assistance of up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level; an extra $19 million for wage supplements for around 3,600 teachers and assistants “in child care settings”; and an additional $3 million for home visiting services to 750 families, according to the budget request.



The department is also asking for an increase that would allow public schools to boost the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in full-day pre-K programs, as well as additional funding for a projected increase in the number of children eligible for the Family Infant Toddler program.

The department will not be creating new early childhood programs.

“Building a new agency from scratch was always going to take funding,” Sackett said. “The costs of the new department are what are needed to sufficiently and effectively stand up the new department and ensure operational and programmatic success.”

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored the bill that created the new department, said Monday that consolidating early childhood services under one agency would make it easier to measure their performance, as well as help determine how to encourage higher rates of participation in the programs.

“This is going to ensure that everybody providing these services is high quality,” Padilla said. “It will finally help us to answer what is the true unmet need in order to get 100 percent adoption across the state.”

Reporter

Jens Erik Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

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