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Should the state tap the $17.5 billion permanent fund for preK?

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Should the state tap the $17.5 billion permanent fund for preK?

By Robert Nott
The New Mexican

Early childhood education proponents are proclaiming a big win now that the House of Representatives has approved a measure to pull more funds from the state’s $17.5 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for prekindergarten programs.

But House Joint Resolution 1, as the measure is known, will soon have to navigate its way through the choppy waters of the Senate Finance Committee before it goes to the full Senate for debate and a vote.

And the head of that committee, Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, made it clear Wednesday the odds aren’t good.

“Based on history, it’s probably a long shot it will get through,” said Smith, a conservative Democrat who has long opposed any efforts to draw money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund.

He is not alone. A poll of seven of the 11 members of that committee, Democrats and Republicans alike, suggests it won’t be an easy sail. At least three have said they will oppose it. Two more are undecided. Only two feel it has a chance.

That sobering, day-after reality was a far cry from the excitement supporters felt after the measure got through the House.

Republicans on the committee, as well as Gov. Susana Martinez — whose signature and approval are not needed in this case — have staunchly stood firm against touching the permanent fund.

The issue is not about early childhood education, they say. The state already uses 5 percent of the fund to support public schools, colleges and other educational entities to the tune of nearly $750 million. They — as well as some Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee — don’t want to see the fund diminish, particularly in light of the recent sharp drop in the stock market.

Others believe the measure, as written now, does not clarify exactly what oversight, if any, the state will have over spending those extra funds.

“If it’s being put out with no plan for oversight, it has the potential for waste, fraud and abuse,” said Sen. Sander Rue, an Albuquerque Republican.

Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, agrees. He said that while he has no issue with permanent funds being used for early childhood education, he noted he fears “heartburn if it is allocated to nonprofits and we have no accountability in determining how they spend that money.

“And what happens to the permanent fund in the future if we pull money out of it now?” he said. “It isn’t just a matter of taking money from the bank. … We are taking it from the corpus.”

He stopped short of saying he would oppose — or support — the bill. So did Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, and Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas.

Sapien, who is moving a similar bill that would increase the amount of money the state takes from the state’s Severance Tax Permanent Fund to raise at least $35 million for early childhood education support, said his plan may be a less risky solution than drawing from the land grant fund. The Senate Rules Committee voted to approve Sapien’s bill earlier this week.

Sapien, like Cisneros, said he will listen to all the debate regarding the resolution, sponsored by three Democratic representatives: Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Javier Martinez of Albuquerque and Stephanie Garcia Richard of Los Alamos.

Last year, the Senate Rules Committee killed a similar bill, sponsored by Maestas and Martinez, with two Democrats joining four Republicans to stop it from moving forward to Senate Finance. This year the bill first goes to Senate Education. Several Democrats on that committee said Wednesday it is likely the committee will back the measure.

Campos said he is “optimistic” Senate Finance will OK the bill, and Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, another Senate Finance member, indicated he would support the measure as well.

“Do we want to stay 50th forever?” Muñoz said, referring to the ranking New Mexico usually receives when it comes to national educational studies. “Why not fix the problem?”

Early childhood education proponents argue that more funds for those programs better prepare children for kindergarten and long-term success.

But they are unlikely to see that extra money come through this year, Rue said.

“I don’t see it moving out of Senate Finance,” he said.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

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