Tweaks to state Constitution not enough
New Mexico voters have proven eager in past elections to change our antiquated state Constitution everytime they get the opportunity.
There have been 10 proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot in the last four elections, and nine of them have passed. Voters chose to dramatically remake the Public Regulation Commission in 2020, create a new ethics commission in 2018 and reform our bail system in 2016. The only proposal not to pass was in 2014 and would have required school board elections to be held separately from other partisan elections.
There will be three constitutional amendments on the ballot this year, including one to increase funding for early childhood education by taking an additional 1.25 percent each year from the Land Grant Permanent Fund. That would generate $211.5 million in fiscal year 2023, with $126.9 million going to early childhood programs and $84.6 million to public schools, according to a legislative analysis.
The primary argument against the amendment is if you increase the distribution from any fund, that will hasten its depletion. The fund gets its money from leases and royalties for oil and gas drilling on state lands. That money is then invested by the State Investment Council. As we all know, the stock market has fallen dramatically from early 2021 when the bill was passed.
Drafters of the original provision were looking ahead to the day when oil and gas would run out, and wanted to ensure schools would still be funded. That remains a valid concern, but it’s wrong to put the wellbeing of tomorrow’s children ahead of those who are falling behind today.
The state has taken steps to improve services for children who are too young to attend public schools, including the creation of a new cabinet-level department in 2019. And, they created a separate fund in 2020 for early childhood education.
They have been able to increase funding during years when the state has seen dramatic revenue growth and increased budgets. But history suggests the boom years won’t last. An ongoing commitment to early childhood education requires a more permanent funding source.
There are two other proposed amendments on the ballot. One addresses what is probably the most antiquated and unnecessarily burdensome provision in our Constitution, the anti-donation clause. Under this amendment, state funds could be used for essential services like broadband Internet, energy and water. We are undoubtedly the only state in the nation that requires a constitutional amendment for those simple functions of governing.
The third amendment would delay the general election for a newly appointed judge until at least one year from the appointment.
I support all three amendments, but I also think it’s time that we stop making tweaks every two years and finally take a hard look at our Constitution, which was written for a much slower, more agrarian society.
Are we well served by being the only state in the nation with an unpaid and unstaffed Legislature? Do the alternating 60-day and 30-day legislative sessions, originally designed to allow lawmakers to get back home to tend their crops, allow for thorough debate of the many pressing issues facing the Legislature today?
The fact that voters are so likely to agree to changes (90 percent over the last four elections) suggests there is a widespread understanding that our Constitution is a flawed document. Instead of making small improvements every two years, lawmakers should get serious about a bipartisan effort to thoroughly review the Constitution and make more fundamental changes to how we govern ourselves.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org