Commentary: Sometimes you just have to hope that you were wrong.
Before the start of this year’s legislative session, I wrote a column headlined, “Kids don’t need another government bureaucracy.” What they did need, I argued, was a reliable funding source for early childhood education, not a new cabinet-level department devoted to the issue.
The state added seven new cabinet-level departments the last time we had a Democratic governor. Departments of Education; Aging and Long-Term Services; Indian Affairs; Veterans Services; Higher Education; Homeland Security and Emergency Management; and Information Technology were all created under Gov. Bill Richardson.
While arguments can be made for each individual department, the creation of seven new cabinet-level agencies greatly increased the size and cost of state government. This year, the first under Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Legislature created yet another state agency, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department. And, the governor has just increased salaries for all cabinet secretaries by 17 percent.
“The payoff starts the earlier we get to these kids and their families. The evidence about that, quite frankly, is unequivocal,” Lujan Grisham said at the bill-signing, according to the Albuquerque Journal. “And now we’re going to be in a position to really provide it.”
I hope so.
But it is worth noting that the bill to provide consistent funding for early childhood education by tapping into the state’s permanent fund died again this year in the Senate Finance Committee, as it does every year. Supporters of the new agency argue that it will improve early-childhood outcomes by taking services now provided by the state’s Children Youth & Families Department, Health Department and the Department of Education, and consolidating them under one agency.
“This will eliminate that duplication of services,” said Rep. Linda Trujillo, a co-sponsor of the bill.
So, to eliminate overlap among government agencies, we’re going to create another government agency? I hope that works.
I really do, because I agree with everything the governor said about the need to reach kids early on. But, that is going to require a whole lot more money than the $1.25 million provided by this bill for startup costs of the new department.
Which brings me back to the Senate Finance Committee. The bill under consideration this year would have increased the annual permanent fund distribution from 5 percent to 5.5 percent, generating an additional $75 million a year by 2021.
Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith refused to put the issue to a vote, so it never reached the Senate floor. Just as all of the previous efforts to tap into the permanent fund have died in Senate Finance without a vote.
Opponents of increasing the distribution argue that the permanent fund is based on a finite resource - oil and gas. The fund is intended to provide a permanent revenue source for schools after the wells run dry.
The state is saving for a day that will never come, argues Chris Erickson, head of the Economics Department at NMSU.
New technologies like fracking and directional drilling have made the supply of gas and oil nearly inexhaustible, Erickson said. Ecological concerns will force a change to new energy sources long before the wells run dry.
The state does need to prepare for a time when gas and oil will no longer be a primary revenue source. But, those solutions and innovations will come from the children we are educating today.
And right now, we’re doing a lousy job. Constitutionally inadequate, according to a district court judge. Among the worst in the country, according to national rankings.
I hope the new department will help. But I fear that the problem is a lack of funding, not a lack of bureaucrats.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.