State leaders who have repeatedly supported a bill to draw money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education programs think this is the year it will become a reality.
The 2021 legislative session will mark the fifth consecutive year Democrats in the House of Representatives will push legislation that would allow voters to decide whether they want to use a portion of that permanent fund money for early childhood education programs.
Armed with a new poll of 500 New Mexico voters that says 75 percent of those queried approve of such a move, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Monday if ever there were a time to ensure families and their children have an opportunity to move forward, “this is that moment.”
“If you want to improve educational outcomes, you have to start earlier,” she said in a statement, referring to national reports that maintain early childhood education programs better prepare children for kindergarten and cut back on remediation and dropout rates down the line.
The two House Democrats from Albuquerque — Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Javier Martinez — have once again introduced House Joint Resolution 1, which would allow for a 1 percent draw from the roughly $20 billion fund for early childhood programs. The lawmakers said the additional money will give the state another $170 million to $180 million to invest in those programs.
Lujan Grisham has pushed for more early childhood education programs since she took office. Last year, she signed the Early Childhood Trust Fund bill into law, initiating a $320 million resource supported by oil and gas-related revenues.
She also started the Early Childhood Education and Care Department to support the expansion of public and private programs for New Mexico’s youngest residents — from prenatal to 5-year-olds.
Members of both the House and Senate would have to approve House Joint Resolution 1, which requires the approval of a constitutional amendment. The ballot question would then go to voters in November 2022.
Repeated efforts to pass similar measures have died in the Legislature — mostly on the Senate side — over the past five years. A couple of earlier initiatives years ago also failed to gain traction with conservative lawmakers, who voiced concern about eroding the fund.
That Land Grant Permanent Fund draws fees from oil, gas and mineral extraction on state trust lands, as well as from grazing and other land uses. It in turn sends hundreds of millions of dollars to public schools, universities and other beneficiaries around the state.
This year, Maestas and Martinez said, a crop of new progressive Democrats entering the Senate — most succeeding entrenched, conservative Democrats — should help their cause.
“Hopefully the culture of the Senate will change where, if you introduce a constitutional amendment, it will get a hearing in a committee,” Maestas said, referring to past years when the initiative, having cleared the House of Representatives, often did not even get heard by a Senate committee before the session ended.
The new poll, commissioned by CHI St. Joseph’s Children, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit that has always supported the resolution, said 72 percent of registered voters believe the Legislature should approve the resolution and leave it up to voters to decide its fate.
Asked if they would vote to support the plan themselves, 75 percent of those New Mexicans said they would, according to the poll. The poll said 11 percent of those asked about the proposal oppose it, while 14 percent remain undecided.
The poll was conducted by LD Insights, LLC, which conducted it via both online and via phone in both Spanish and English during the first week of January. Gabriel Sánchez of LD Insights, who also is a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said his company chose 500 registered voters from all political parties at random for the survey.
Sánchez said this is the first such project by LD Insights. He said 44 percent of those surveyed were registered as Democrats, 30 percent as Republicans, and 24 percent as independents. The rest were aligned with other political parties.
Allen Sánchez, president of CHI St. Joseph’s Children and no relation to Gabriel Sánchez, said he thinks more New Mexicans are aware of the initiative since it has been repeatedly covered in the media and vetted in the Legislature. As a result, he said, “the children of New Mexico are in the hearts and minds of New Mexicans.”
Maestas said he’s feeling more optimistic than ever before about the resolution.
But referring to all the times when the legislation looked like it might clear the Senate and move forward, Maestas added: “It’s like having a birthday cake staring you in the face, and you didn’t take a bite.”
Correction: The original version of this story said LD Insights was formerly known as Latino Decisions. Latino Decisions still exists, and LD Insights is a separate company.