- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Democratic New Mexico lawmakers on Thursday proposed a constitutional amendment to provide new funding for early childhood education programs from the state’s largest permanent fund.

Reps. Antonio Maestas and Javier Martinez, both of Albuquerque, pre-filed the initiative for consideration when the legislature convenes in mid-January. The amendment would increase annual distributions from the state’s $15 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund from 5 percent to 6 percent of its value by 2022.

At the fund’s current value, the additional 1 percent distribution would provide about $130 million.

The distributions would go toward education programs for children ages 0-5, including home visits by counselors designed to ward off neglect.

Maestas said the spending proposal responds to increasing evidence that early education can improve education outcomes in elementary school, high school and beyond. “To fully fund childhood development is a moral imperative,” he said.

The fund receives royalties from oil and natural gas production and other income from land given to the state by the federal government. Current annual distributions fund public schools, state universities and other public institutions. Maestas asserted that the permanent fund can withstand an increased burden without losing value in the long run.

Efforts to the increase distributions to education initiatives from the land grant fund have become a perennial source of political conflict.

House Republicans last year blocked a proposed amendment for distributions to public and specialty schools. Democrats may have the upper hand this year after winning back majority control of the House and further consolidating Senate control.

Constitutional amendments require approval by the majority of all elected lawmakers before a statewide referendum is held. The governor’s approval is not needed.

Lawmakers convene on Jan. 17 to resolve a budget deficit linked a downturn in the oil and natural gas industry and consider a wide variety of policy initiatives. Lawmakers are honing proposals to crack down on reckless driving and shore up state finances by legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana.

Second-term Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has yet to unveil her priorities. She has steadfastly opposed any tax increases.

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