The chairwoman of the New Mexico House Appropriations and Finance Committee voiced concern Monday about the governor’s plan to increase spending on early childhood education, while the executive branch said lawmakers’ lower budget proposals would have “devastating outcomes” on children.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said when the creation of a new department focused on early childhood services was approved in last year’s legislative session, there was “never, ever any discussion” that the department would need the level of additional funding that is being requested.
“That was never talked about,” said Lundstrom, who is also vice chairwoman of the Legislative Finance Committee. “I need to understand how come less than 12 months later, all of a sudden, we need to really blow this budget up.”
The Office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has called for a $74 million increase in early childhood funding to be administered by the newly created the Early Childhood Education and Care Department in fiscal year 2021. That would include expanding programs such as prekindergarten, home visiting, child care assistance and family nutrition.
“I don’t think that’s cooked,” Lundstrom said, referring to the governor’s recommendations.
The Governor’s Office said Monday numerous state agencies have spoken with legislators in recent months about the “absolute need” to increase early childhood funding.
“LFC’s [Legislative Finance Committee] lower funding recommendation would result in devastating outcomes for children across the state: hungry children, children from disadvantaged families, children with working parents, and many more,” spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said. “It would not be enough.”
She added that she didn’t recall any discussions in the 2019 session about not expanding early childhood programming.
“Expanding those services is a priority for the governor because those services and programs are of critical support and assistance for New Mexico families,” Sackett said.
The overall budget for the early childhood department recommended by the governor is $440.5 million, whereas the Legislative Finance Committee has recommended a budget of $390 million.
The two recommendations will serve as reference points during budget negotiations in the 30-day legislative session that begins this month.
The budget recommendations from Lujan Grisham and the Legislative Finance Committee are largely in line with each other. The governor is calling for an 8.4 percent increase to $7.68 billion, while the committee recommends a 6.5 percent increase to $7.54 billion.
Yet there are funding discrepancies in a few key areas such as early childhood services, a college scholarship program and shoring up the state’s pension systems.
Lundstrom also said she was not clear on how the governor was proposing to spend distributions from a new early childhood trust fund included in her recommendations.
The Governor’s Office said the fund will be spent on “early childhood education and care programs and services — just as the name implies.”
The administration is proposing a one-time, $320 million appropriation to create a trust fund for early childhood services. The Legislative Finance Committee is proposing an appropriation of $325 million for the fund.
Legislation that would create such a fund already has been filed for the upcoming session.