Panel shelves early childhood education proposal

February 17, 2014 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A proposal to boost funding for early [auth] childhood education stalled Monday in a Senate committee, likely dooming it as time runs out in the legislative session.

The Finance Committee tabled the measure on an 8-2 vote, and it’s doubtful the panel will reconsider the proposal before the Legislature adjourns Thursday.

The proposal by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, would change the state constitution to increase how much is allocated annually to early childhood programs from the $13 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund.

It’s estimated the measure would provide an additional $160 million a year for early childhood programs, and supporters say those services would help kids succeed in school and later in jobs.

“We believe this is in the best interests of the children of the state of New Mexico,” Sanchez said.

Opponents contend the proposal would slow the fund’s growth, lessening payouts for future generations.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and committee chairman, pointed out that the Legislature had increased spending on early childhood programs by 70 percent in the past three years. About $235 million annually goes to programs ranging from pre-kindergarten to subsidized child care.

Smith has drawn criticism for not holding a committee hearing last year on a similar proposal.

He said he had been targeted by mailings, radio ads and automated phone calls in his district that were “directed in such a way as if I could care less about kids, and I take exception to that.”

He said his wife was an early childhood educator, and he noted that he had sponsored the expansion of full-day kindergarten in New Mexico.

“I want to dispel the issue out there that the Legislature and myself and a few us could care less about kids because that’s just flat not the case,” Smith said. “We all want our kids to succeed. We share common goals. We know the importance of early childhood, but we also want to make certain that we get results when we spend our money.”

The permanent fund receives royalties from oil and natural gas production and other income from land given to the state by the federal government.

Under current law, the fund is expected to provide more than $600 million a year for schools and other public institutions, including universities.

Constitutional amendments, if endorsed by the Legislature, are placed on the November general election ballot for voters to decide.

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