- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A Senate Democratic leader scolded the state Democratic Party chairman on Thursday for suggesting that a southern New Mexico lawmaker consider becoming a Republican for blocking a proposed constitutional amendment for funding early childhood education.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Michael Sanchez of Belen criticized party chairman Sam Bregman for recent remarks about Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, who’s in charge of a committee that handles budget issues.

At issue is a proposal to boost payouts from a state permanent fund to provide more money for early childhood education. The measure died last year when Smith didn’t schedule it for a vote in the Senate Finance Committee.

Bregman said during a news conference last week in Albuquerque that the constitutional amendment was a top Democratic priority this session. He also said Smith should considering switching parties if he didn’t allow a committee vote on the proposal. If Smith continues to bottle up the education amendment and remains a Democrat, Bregman said, the senator could face a primary challenge if he runs for re-election in 2016.

Sanchez said Bregman’s comments were wrong. He described Smith as a friend and “one of the strongest Democrats I know.”

He said no party official “should tell us what we have to do.”

“For some member of our party to try to embarrass a member of the New Mexico state Senate is just not right,” said Sanchez.

Bregman isn’t retreating from his comments, however.

“I don’t regret one thing I said and I still stand by it and believe it,” Bregman said in a telephone interview. “This is a Democratic core issue that is important to Democrats across the state and he should at least allow it for a vote.”

Smith said he’s concerned that increasing payouts from the Land Grant Permanent Fund would slow its growth from investment earnings, potentially leaving less money in the future to meet the needs of the state’s population.

The fund receives royalties from oil and natural gas production and other income from land given to the state by the federal government. A portion of the fund is distributed each year to benefit public elementary and secondary schools and 20 other institutions, including universities.

Smith said he was “getting a terrible rap” on early childhood funding, which has increased substantially for programs such as pre-kindergarten.

Bregman hasn’t called Smith directly. The party leader’s comments, Smith said, “worries me in the sense that it splits this party even further.”


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

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