Circus arts education bill clears first hoop

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Even more than most mornings, the New Mexico statehouse had a circus atmosphere on Friday.

Sen. Craig Brandt arrived with a stuffed elephant memorializing the defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, made it clear that he was ready to debate a bill titled “Circus Arts Education.”

The sponsor of the proposal, Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, eyed Brandt’s elephant and said it was off the mark.

“The bill has nothing to do with elephants or animals,” Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, said without a trace of defensiveness.

She told Brandt and other members of the Senate Education Committee that her Senate Bill 412 is all about helping kids develop physically and emotionally. Providing them with a taste of the circus arts is a worthy program that opens up new avenues of learning, Rodriguez said.

Her bill would allocate $100,000 to the Public Education Department for a roving instructional program on activities such as “trapeze, aerial fabrics, unicycling, juggling, clowning, stilt-walking, giant puppetry and partner acrobatics.”

Companies might bid for the work.

Rodriguez said Wise Fool New Mexico asked her to carry the bill. The organization specializes in the arts of circus, theater and puppetry.

Amy Christian, artistic director of Santa Fe-based Wise Fool, served as Rodriguez’s expert witness. She said her organization has more requests for appearances in schools than it can handle.

Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, testified in favor of the bill, saying it would help kids.

“All physical activity is healthy,” Bernstein said.

Sen. Candace Gould, R-Albuquerque, voted for the bill. This program would open young minds and fuel imaginations, Gould said.

Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, agreed.

“It’s a legitimate way of learning, but it invites ridicule,” he said.

Brandt’s initial skepticism lessened as he listened to the testimony. The bill had sounded like something to train students for work in circuses, he said.

“There’s not a whole lot of jobs left,” he said, alluding to the collapse of once-mighty Ringling Bros. and other circuses.

Brandt still voted against the bill. So did Sen. Gregg Fulfer, R-Jal.

But the proposal carried 7-2. Gould joined six Democrats in moving it ahead to the Senate Finance Committee.

Rodriguez, though, said she doubted that the bill can make it all the way through the Legislature in the last two weeks of the session.

It means the circus bill might make an encore appearance next year.