2018 State Legislature: Groups protest for early childhood ed

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The New Mexican

Lines of young children filed into the Roundhouse on Thursday wearing cowboy hats, bandanas and sheriff’s badges for another showdown of sorts over funding for early childhood education.

The kids are likely to be outgunned politically as long as fiscally conservative Democrats hold sway in the state Senate.

The 1,000 Kid March, as it is known, has turned into an annual event at the state Capitol – a bit of political theater that can feel downright Capraesque. It brings a visceral debate over how New Mexico’s oil and gas wealth should be used.

The event’s organizers, the advocacy group Invest in Kids Now and the nonprofit Catholic Health Initiatives St. Joseph’s Children, argue the state should use an additional 1 percent of investment revenues from New Mexico’s multibillion-dollar Land Grant Permanent Fund each year to boost early childhood education programs -- an amount that would start at about $140 million annually and grow from there.

Funded with revenue from oil and gas production on state trust lands, the endowment now totals about $17 billion; 5 percent of its investment revenues already go to the state’s public education system.

Budget hawks have long argued that using a greater share of the fund would imperil it for future generations.

But backers of the idea argue the state should use a larger share now as it faces the highest child poverty rate in the nation – a factor linked to poor educational outcomes, health issues, higher rates of child abuse and neglect and other problems.

Numerous studies have shown that early childhood programs can help offset those effects of poverty.

“New Mexico is a rich state. It’s not a poor state,” said Allen Sánchez, president and CEO of CHI St. Joseph’s children, who long has pushed for the state to spend more of the endowment’s revenues on its children.

State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, a Democrat from Albuquerque who is sponsoring a constitutional amendment to put the idea to voters, said “1 percent is totally doable, it’s totally reasonable and it’s time this on the ballot.”

While the state House of Representatives passed such an amendment last year, the measure died in a Senate committee.

Both Gov. Susana Martinez and the Legislature are proposing increases in funding for early childhood education, but nothing on the magnitude the amendment would provide. The idea continues to draw scorn from fiscal conservatives.

The rally’s theme this year, with cowboy hats and all, was a reference to a 2017 editorial cartoon that appeared in the Albuquerque Journal depicting stagecoach drivers steering a load toward Santa Fe – a treasure chest of cash labeled “land grant permanent fund.”

“Keep yer eyes peeled!” one man says to the other. “I hear the Pre-K Gang hangs out in these parts!”

And so, after speaking about the constitutional amendment, Sánchez asked a crowd of children to raise their right hands, deputizing them into the “Pre-K Gang.”

“Do you promise to change New Mexico?” he asked, to a chorus of “yes.” “Do you promise to make the future brighter?”

Whether legislators agree the constitutional amendment will do just that remains unclear.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com.