In a late-night surprise Wednesday in the House of Representatives, Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, who has missed most of the legislative session because of a heart operation, showed up to help pass a proposed constitutional amendment that would take an extra one percent of interest earnings from New Mexico’s $20 billion land grant permanent fund to help pay for early childhood education.
The House voted 37-32, mostly along party lines, to pass House Joint Resolution 1, a vote which had been delayed for more than a week, partly because of the Santa Fe legislator’s absence.
Trujillo, a long-time advocate of the proposal, received a standing ovation when he walked into the chamber immediately before the House ended a three-hour debate.
The measure now goes to the Senate, where the road is expected to be much rougher. The proposal is certain to meet resistance from the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, a longtime opponent of taking extra money out of the land grant fund. In 2014, the last time the Senate Finance Committee voted on a such a proposal, the panel killed the idea on an 8-2 vote.
The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said the financial move, which would require approval by New Mexico voters, is needed to improve education and fight childhood poverty.
Maestas quoted University of Chicago economics professor and Nobel prize winner James J. Heckman as saying that money spent on high quality early-childhood education programs brings the equivalent of a 13 percent rate of return on the money spent. Children in such programs tend to be more successful, get better jobs, and are less likely to commit crimes.
Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, said this is a good argument against a common characterization of the proposal as a “raid on the fund.”
“Investing in our most precious resource will bring dividends,” he said, “returns for years to come.”
Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, noted that New Mexico ranks as one of the worst states for child poverty. Spending more on early childhood education would be an important step in changing this, he said.
Opponents argued that the move would damage the permanent fund. Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, spoke about the last time the state tapped into the fund. In the early years of Democrat Bill Richardson’s first term as governor lawmakers agreed to take money out to help pay for an increase in teacher salaries. Voters in 2003 narrowly approved a constitutional amendment that allowed officials to dip more from the fund.
If that money hadn’t been used, Roch said, the fund would have $200 million more than it has now. “Student outcomes didn’t change,” he said.
Maestas argued that even with the extra distributions that began in 2003 the permanent fund continued to grow, “despite the greatest crash of our lifetime.”
Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, said a fiscal impact report on the proposal by the Legislative Finance Committee stated that most of the estimated $153 million taken from the fund during the first year would not go to early childhood education. About $91 million would go to general education, while $23 million would go to other beneficiaries of the fund. “So you have $114 million not touching early childhood development,” he said.
Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, said early-childhood education should be responsibility of families and religious organizations, not the government.
Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said, “I am very concerned about my grandchildren’s grandchildren if we keep whittling away [the permanent fund].”
The fiscal impact report estimates that the measure would take more than $153 million out of the fund in the 2020 fiscal year, more than $158 million the second year, and more than $163 million the third year it was in place.
The endowment already helps fund public schools and universities. They received about $656 million last year.
The House adopted an amendment moved by Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, to put a stop date on taking money from the fund in the year 2032.
A three-fifths majority in both the House and Senate can vote to suspend the extra distributions, and the additional distributions automatically would be suspended should the five-year fund average drop below $12 billion.
All Democrats except for Rep. Candie Sweetser, D-Deming, and Rep. Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos, voted for the proposed amendment. All Republicans, except Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Alamogordo, voted against it.
The resolution had been on the House calendar for more than a week, but House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, delayed the vote because there were not enough Democrats present to pass it.
Because it involves amending the state Constitution, the resolution needs not just a simple majority of those present, but a majority of all elected members — in other words, 36 voting in favor.