- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A proposal to provide at least $100 million annually for early childhood education cleared an early hurdle in the Legislature on Wednesday.

The measure by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, would change the state constitution to increase how much is allocated each year from the Land Grant Permanent Fund, which has assets worth about $13 billion.

The Senate Rules Committee approved the measure on a 5-4 party-line vote, with Republicans in opposition. The measure heads to another consideration and is expected to face stronger opposition.

A coalition of religious, education and social advocacy groups backs the proposal as a way to provide a dedicated source of money for early childhood programs ranging from child care to pre-kindergarten.

New Mexico was ranked worst in the county in child well-being by a recent national report. Supporters of the proposal said it would provide critical money for programs to help children succeed in school and later in the workforce.

“Something like this could change the game,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat.

Opponents contend the proposal would erode the fund’s growth, lessening distributions for future generations. However, supporters have commissioned a private study that says the fund would continue to grow even with higher distributions.

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 $500 million this year for schools and 20 other public institutions, including universities and state hospitals. Public schools receive a majority of the money.

Sanchez advocates increasing the yearly payout, which is currently a percentage of the fund’s average five-year market value. The proposal would provide about $160 million a year for early childhood programs.

However, Sanchez agreed to scale back the proposed increase - providing about $100 million for early childhood services - and will make that change when the measure is considered by the next committee.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, a Grants Democrat and Rules Committee member, said he wouldn’t support the proposal without the change.

The proposal, if endorsed by the Senate and House, would be placed on the November general election ballot for voter approval. Unlike a bill, a proposed constitutional amendment does not require the governor’s signature.


Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

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