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Legislators split on early childhood trust fund

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Legislators from Chaves County were divided on where they came down on legislation creating a state trust fund for early childhood care and education initiatives.

House Bill 83 (HB 83) establishes the Early Childhood Education and Care Fund, which was signed into law by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham Monday. A substitute by the House Appropriations and Finance Committee passed the New Mexico House Feb. 10 and the New Mexico Senate Saturday.

Lujan Grisham made establishing the fund a top priority in the current 30-day legislative session.

“For so many years, the message to children and families was: Maybe another time. This year, we are sending a very clear signal that the time is now. Investments for tomorrow will not wait; children deserve opportunity beginning this instant,” Lujan Grisham said.

Legislators will be able to draw from the fund to appropriate money for early childhood care and education needs such as additional slots for 3- and 4-year-olds in pre-kindergarten; childcare assistance; and home visits, according to the Fiscal Impact Report for HB 83.

The fund is established with a one-time appropriation of $320 million from the proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget. In future years, the fund would be sustained through excess oil and gas revenue.

The fund is forecast to receive $20 million in Fiscal Year 2022 and $30 million in Fiscal Year 2023, according to the Fiscal Impact Report for HB 83.

New Mexico state Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell, voted for the legislation. In the Senate, which passed the legislation 37 to 1, local state Sens. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell, Bill Burt of Alamogordo, Gay Kernan of Hobbs and Stuart Ingle of Portales voted for HB 83.

Anderson said Tuesday he believes the fund is a step forward for New Mexico.

“New Mexico enjoys a last-place finish in early childhood success. We must all work together to reverse that poor showing,” he said.

He added the funding plan for HB 83 is one that he finds preferable to a proposal made by the governor last year that would have diverted money from the state’s permanent fund for early childhood education. Anderson said that proposal would have been fiscally irresponsible.

State Reps. James Townsend, R-Artesia; Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell; and Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, were among 14 lawmakers who voted against HB 83.

Nibert said he does not like the bill’s funding structure.

HB 83 would divert excess money the state receives from the oil and gas emergency tax and federal mineral leasing revenue if the amount is more than the five-year average that comes into the state.

Although only access revenue would be used from the two sources, Nibert said as written, the legislation would allow the fund to grow beyond its need and restrict the amount that goes into the state’s rainy day fund. The rainy day fund is money used to help the state weather revenue shortfalls.

“That places a cap on the rainy day fund and it will never grow to a size that would insulate the state from the volatility of the oil and gas markets on which over 40% of our budget depends,” Nibert said.

If the early childhood fund only took a portion of the funding and would stop once it reached a certain level, Nibert said, he could have been persuaded of the wisdom of launching such a fund.

Ezzell said she thinks money would be spent on initiatives that assist new and expectant parents and helping them get more involved in the upbringing of children as young as 3 and 4.

“It is not up to us as a legislative body to say we know how to take care of your child better than you do and that is basically what we are doing here,” Ezzell said on the House floor Feb. 10 when the bill was being debated.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.