SANTA FE (KRQE) – A constitutional amendment that the Democratic Party has called a “top priority” this session took a step forward Wednesday morning.
SJR 12, backed by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, would increase annual distributions out of the state’s $13 billion land grant permanent fund and spend that money on early childhood education programs.
The Senate Rules Committee moved that proposal forward on a party line vote, although the contents of the amendment are likely to be significantly changed soon.
Currently, the amendment calls for fund distributions to increase to 7 percent in 2016, with 1.5 percent of that going toward early childhood education. However, Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, proposed an amendment that would reduce those distributions to 6 percent with 1 percent of that earmarked for early childhood education.
Sen. Michael Sanchez agreed to bring up that amendment at the proposal’s next stop, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Clemente Sanchez backed off.
Many Democrats support the idea saying it is vital to improving the well being of the state’s children and could boost New Mexico’s future.
“Something like this could change the game,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque.
The chief complaint from Republican lawmakers and some fiscally conservative Democrats is that increasing the distribution from the state’s long-term savings would drain that account.
“We need to be protecting the piggy bank for our grandchildren,” said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque. “We have an obligation and commitment to future generations not to steal the money from today and spend it on more government programs.”
A fiscal impact report on SJR 12 in its current form concludes the proposal would “undoubtedly deplete the fund over time,” saying that the fund would lose $6.8 billion by 2030.
Supporters of the idea have pushed a study of their own claiming that the benefits from the investment and the health of the fund make the idea a good one.
SJR 12 still has two more committee stops before the full Senate could vote on it. The biggest expected hurdle is Senate Finance, chaired by Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming.
Smith has voiced skepticism about the long term effects on the land grant permanent fund and has come under fire for not allowing a similar proposal to come up for a vote last session.
If lawmakers approve the proposal, it would go to voters in November.