N.M. congressional Dems add early ed amendment to federal spending bill

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Dec. 21—New Mexico's congressional Democrats have successfully added the voter-approved Constitutional Amendment 1 to an omnibus federal spending plan, a move that could pave the way for the state to begin drawing more than $200 million more a year from the multibillion-dollar Land Grand Permanent Fund for early childhood programs and K-8 schools.

Congress is expected to vote on the appropriations agreement this week.

About 70 percent of New Mexico voters approved the amendment in November, in large part to bolster services for young children across the state. The ballot measure came after a yearslong legislative effort to increase withdrawals from the growing state land endowment for education.

"It's very encouraging to hear that it looks like it's moving through the omnibus spending bill," Early Childhood Education and Care Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky said. "I think it just continues to have the momentum that it has since it was passed in the Legislature and then, now, what we saw on Election Day with the 70 percent approval."

Still, the amendment requires congressional approval because the investment fund — now at more than $25 billion — stems from a federal land grant, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June. With congressional approval, yearly funding from the endowment would allow New Mexico residents to benefit from the economic and social benefits associated with quality early childhood education, the senator said.

"We can keep that money idle — just sitting in the bank in perpetuity — or we can invest it in our children right now. I know which will give us a greater return," Heinrich said.

Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury introduced the New Mexico Education Enhancement Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Ben Ray Luján and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, to secure congressional approval of the amendment in December 2021.

The language of that bill is now included in the bipartisan appropriations deal for fiscal year 2023.

"This effort to provide a long-term, stable funding stream for quality early childhood education is years in the making — backed overwhelmingly by New Mexico voters, the state legislature, and an incredible coalition of advocates," Heinrich, Stansbury, Luján and Leger Fernández said in a joint statement Tuesday. "Investing in our children at the level they have long deserved will help change the trajectory of our state."

If Congress approves the measure, the Legislature will appropriate the funding stream outlined in the amendment, Groginsky said.

President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill after it is sent to him.

"We continue to stay focused ... on expanding access to quality early care and education services," Groginsky said. "That includes, of course, our child care programs, our home visiting, pre-K — [we] absolutely want to expand pre-K to more 3-year-olds. I think that this is encouraging in that direction, knowing that the revenues needed to fully fund the prenatal to 5 system are great."

Last week, Democratic lawmakers accused outgoing U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, who represents New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District, and other House Republicans of stalling the bill.

Herrell's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Congressman-elect Gabe Vasquez, who defeated Herrell in the 2022 election by just over 1,000 votes, issued a statement last week calling on his predecessor to support federal approval of Constitutional Amendment 1.

"I urge Rep. Herrell to make the right decision and help deliver early childhood education for New Mexico's families — there is nothing more important, and bipartisan, than the future of our children," Vasquez tweeted Dec. 16.

New Mexico's congressional Democrats said they are forging ahead without Herrell's support.

"We will continue to do everything in our power to get this legislation over the finish line and follow the will of the people of New Mexico," they said in a news release. "The future of our state will be brighter because of it."

Congress is working out the final details of the budget for fiscal year 2023, according to the House Appropriations Committee. A vote on the omnibus bill is expected by Friday.