Amending the Constitution

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By Sherry Robinson

Last year, the Legislature passed a proposed constitutional amendment, changing one word of the state Constitution. Its purpose is to make it easier to vote in local elections and considerably less expensive for local jurisdictions to hold those elections. The amendment will be on the ballot this coming November.
The amendment removes the obsolete restriction, written a century ago, that requires school elections to be held at different times from other elections. It changes the word “other” to “partisan.” If it passes, as I fervently hope it does, it will enable local jurisdictions to discuss the possibility of holding school and municipal elections together. It will also offer that option to special districts (such as water and sanitation districts), which get minimal voter participation because most voters don’t know enough about them and they can’t afford to advertise much.
I am a huge supporter of this change. I wrote about it last July. I mention it now as an example of an appropriate use for a constitutional amendment.
The only way to change something that is locked in the state Constitution is to amend the Constitution.
This year, a proposed amendment has been introduced (SJR 2, sponsored by Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque) to re-reform the state education bureaucracy. The amendment proposes to eliminate the Secretary of Education and re-create the education superintendent hired by the state Board of Education.
Regardless of what you think of this proposal, it’s framed correctly. A constitutional amendment is required to reverse a previous amendment that some New Mexicans now don’t like. That’s one reason we should be cautious in enacting amendments.
In this context, I’m concerned about the proposal on funding new programs for early childhood — SJR 12, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen.
The proposal diverts money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund and earmarks it for early childhood programs. The programs are a worthy experiment — and, heaven knows, New Mexico needs new solutions for our perennially lagging education system. But I do not trust the possible results of permanent diversion from the fund.
Regrettably, any social need can be turned into somebody’s profit center. We are living in a brave new world where corporations make profits from “businesses” such as prisons.
Consider this hypothetical: The amendment is passed. There is now $100 million-plus per year in play. A number of well-intentioned groups step forward, form community-based nonprofits and hire hundreds of workers with kind hearts and the right qualifications. Perhaps some of them are social workers who were displaced in the recent behavioral health debacle.
In our scenario, that $100-million honey pot attracts national attention. Along come influential companies from out of state with a clever strategy. Bang! Ethically or otherwise, the rug is pulled out from under those sweet little community organizations. There goes the money, and we have no idea what level of service is being provided to the children.
Speculation? Nonsense? That scenario is roughly what happened last year to our behavioral health system. With $100 million waving in the wind, we’d be naive to assume it couldn’t happen again.
The early childhood advocates say in order for the program to work, they need assurance the money will continue for several years. Good point. But assurance is not possible.
A constitutional amendment is not the assurance the advocates would like it to be. Agreed: New Mexico should do much more to prepare little children for school and in some cases to prepare their parents for parenthood. I’d feel a lot less nervous if we find another way to fund it.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through triplespacedagain.com.