Early education proposal dies without hearing in Senate Finance Committee
By Milan Simonich
The New Mexican
The proposal to expand early childhood education across New Mexico died quietly Tuesday at the state Capitol, scotched because a vote on the initiative will not be taken in the state Senate Finance Committee.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, the Democrat from Deming who chairs the committee, said in an interview that he had decided not to give a hearing to the proposed constitutional amendment before the legislative session ends at noon Thursday.
“It doesn’t have the votes,” Smith said of the measure, House Joint Resolution 1.
Asked if he had polled his 12-member committee, Smith said he expected that at least he and the five Republican members probably would vote down the initiative.
That would leave the measure no better than a 6-6 tie, meaning it could not advance to the full 42-member Senate.
“It may not even be that close,” Smith said.
The proposal, which cleared the House of Representatives last week by a razor-thin margin, called for spending 1 percent from the $16 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund for a range of programs for children from infancy to age 5.
Advocates for the early childhood proposal criticized Smith for bottling up the proposal without giving it a vote.
“The children and the families of New Mexico deserve to know who supports this and who doesn’t,” said Allen Sánchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the advocacy groups that has campaigned for the constitutional amendment since 2011.
New Mexico, with consistent bottom-tier rankings for child well-being and adverse experiences for children, needed the early childhood initiative to turn the deep poverty that strangles the state, Sánchez said.
To bolster its case, his group distributed statistics and growing rates of abused and neglected children in most counties represented by members of the Senate Finance Committee.
Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, one of the sponsors of the proposal in the House of Representatives, said he found irony that legislators had been so diligent in attacking the problem of a sinkhole in Carlsbad that threatens a mobile home park, businesses and a railway.
Martinez said the threat to New Mexico’s children who do not have access to early childhood education programs is just as grave, though not so visible as the sinkhole that is 350 feet wide and 750 feet long.
Martinez voted to allocate up to $30 million in state funding to help Carlsbad head off an environmental and economic disaster. He said he had hoped that the early childhood initiative would have been taken just as seriously because it, too, can save lives.
Had the early childhood education proposal cleared the Senate, it would have gone to the voters in the November election.
Martinez estimated the measure would have allocated about $150 million a year for early childhood education.
All Republicans in the Legislature who had voted on the constitutional amendment opposed it.
One of them, Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said he considered the proposal financially unsound because it would stunt the growth of the land grant endowment, which is supposed to last in perpetuity.
The endowment grows through market investments and from royalties and leases for use of state land by extraction industries.
This year, the endowment is contributing about $683 million to beneficiaries. Most of the money goes to K-12 public schools.
Sánchez said early childhood education should be an extension of that funding program for public schools.
He and other advocates for the constitutional amendment say early childhood programs work so well that they lead to more college graduates and fewer people in prisons and on welfare.
Smith, who championed all-day kindergarten as one of his legislative initiatives years ago, said he appreciates the value of early childhood programs. His wife taught kids in grades 1-3, he said, and he wants high-quality education programs at every level.
But, Smith said, the constitutional amendment has a flaw that cannot be fixed.
“I just don’t think it’s responsible financially,” he said.
The last time his committee voted on the initiative it failed 8-2. Only Democratic Sens. Nancy Rodriguez of Santa Fe and Howie Morales of Silver City supported the measure.
Morales, still a member of Smith’s finance committee, said there had been no conversations about the panel voting on the proposal for a vote this session.
Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080. Follow his Ringside Seat column in Monday’s and Friday’s editions.