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Dow opposition can’t stop early childhood legislation

Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences

LAS CRUCES - As the lone voice against a constitutional amendment to increase funding for early childhood programs, Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, was badly outnumbered Wednesday, Jan. 27, in the New Mexico House Commerce and Economic Development Committee.

House Joint Resolution 1 would increase the annual distribution from the Land Grant Permanent Fund from 5 percent to 6 percent, adding millions of dollars to the state’s early childhood education and care programs. It was passed out of the committee on a 6-4 party-line vote.

Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, has introduced the joint resolution every year since 2013, and it has passed six times already in the House of Representatives. In past years, the bill could never advance out of the Senate Finance Committee. A new chairman of that committee and other changes in the Senate following last year’s election have given new hope to the bill’s supporters, who include Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The change would generate an additional $196 million in the first year, according to the staff analysis. Of that, about $170 million would go to early childhood programs; the rest would be split among the 20 other beneficiaries of the fund.

Elizabeth Groginsky, secretary for the newly created Department of Early Childhood Education and Care, said the additional distribution would give her department the funding it needs to provide universal pre-kindergarten services to every child in the state, as well as increase home visitation and early intervention programs.

It would also allow the department to improve standards and pay for childcare workers, Groginsky said. She said a recent survey showed that 27 percent of that workforce is earning less than $15,000 a year.

Dow, who is the owner of an early educational center in Sierra County, said she appreciates the advances the state has made in early childhood education. She said when she opened her center in 1999, the state was paying more to house stray dogs in a kennel than it paid for infant care.

Because of those advancements, she said the state is now already serving all of the children who both need and want early-childhood services. But as long as the programs remain voluntary, they will not reach those children who are most at need, she said.

“As we make investments in home visits, pre-K and early intervention, the parents that need it the most are the ones who are not participating,” she said. “Those families are very hard to engage if these programs remain voluntary.

“Research simply does not justify universal programs,” she added. “We’re going to fill slots without any evidence that the children who need it most will fill those slots.”

She also noted that the increased distribution is expected to slow the growth of the fund, so that in about three decades the distributions will be less than if the fund had remained at 5 percent.

“That’s the question,” Maestas responded. “29 years from now we’ll get about $350 million less. These kids will be in their 20s and 30s. If we cannot create $350 million in tax revenue by building a first-class economy and educate every child in the state … You want 28 years from now to have $350 million so you can spend that on the next generation of poor kids?”

Maestas was joined by more than 20 people who signed up on Zoom to speak in favor of the joint resolution.

Bill Jordan of the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children pointed to annual child wellbeing rankings in which New Mexico regularly finishes last or near last in the nation.

“One of the things we know from the data is our kids are behind before they ever get to school,” he said. “We urge you to invest in our own kids over Wall Street.”

The legislation now moves to the House Education Committee, which must give its approval before it can get a vote on the floor. Because this is a joint resolution seeking to amend the state constitution, it would have to be approved by the voters in the 2022 election if passed by the Legislature.