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Early Childhood permanent fund authorization included in budget proposal

Legislation granting congressional approval for New Mexico's recent voter-backed proposal to withdraw more money from the state's Permanent fund and using it for early childhood education has been included in a massive congressional spending bill.

New Mexico Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan, along with U.S. Reps. Melanie Stansbury and Teresa Leger Fernandez said in a joint statement Tuesday that the language is part of the $1.7 trillion Omnibus Spending bill being considered by Congress.

“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,” the statement said.

Advocates of tapping the Permanent Fund for more education funding lauded Tuesday's announcement.

“We're nearing the finish line for expanding early childhood care and education! A huge THANKS to our congressional delegation,” New Mexico Voices For Children, a non-profit organization, posted on their group's Facebook page.

With days left in the current session of Congress lawmakers are focused on passing the 4,155 page spending package to avert a government shutdown before the end of the week and before adjourning for Christmas break.

As of late Tuesday, lawmakers in both chambers were still debating the budget but Julia Friedman, communications director for Stansbury, said with Democrats solidly behind the language related to the Permanent Fund passage is all but assured.

The language consents to an amendment to the New Mexico Constitution — recently ratified by the Legislature and 70% of state voters — that will disperse an increased sum from the state's School Permanent Fund for “Enhanced Instruction for Students at Risk of Failure, Extending the School Year, Teacher Compensation and Early Childhood Education.”

Most of New Mexico's congressional delegation has made securing passage of such authorization a top priority. Heinrich sponsored legislation doing so in the Senate and Stansbury in the House. Lujan and Leger Fernandez were co-sponsors.

In July, the legislation passed out of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources unanimously, but backers have accused Republicans in the U.S House of Representatives of blocking the inclusion of that language in the budget bill.

Specifically, they have singled out U.S. Rep.Yvette Herrell, the sole Republican member of Congress from New Mexico and only member of the state's delegation not to sign onto a bill to provide congressional consent for the funds to be unlocked.

On Friday in a joint statement, Heinrich and Stansbury made a plea for Herrell to convince her fellow House Republicans to support placing the authorizing legislation into the budget proposal.

“As proud parents and products of public schools, we urge Congresswoman Herrell to help pass legislation concurring with Constitutional Amendment One and following the will of the people of New Mexico. The future of our state depends on it,” the statement read.

Representatives for the office of Herrell, who in November was defeated in her bid for re-election by Democrat Gabe Vasquez and will not be returning to Congress next year, did no respond to repeated requests for comment.

In an interview with the Roswell Daily Record Friday, Vasquez, who will fill the seat, urged his former opponent to push the inclusion of the language in the spending plan.

“More than 70% of New Mexicans have spoken, they have supported this constitutional amendment and I think if Representative Herrell supports state's rights and cares about the future of New Mexico children, she should support this bill,” Vasquez said.

The Land Grant Permanent Fund, currently valued at $25.5 billion, is made up of revenue the state collects from leases on 13 million acres of public land within New Mexico.

Each year the money accrued is invested by the state with 5% of the total end market value of the fund distributed among 21 beneficiaries including state universities, hospitals, the New Mexico Military Institute and a K-12 fund, according to the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee.

Under the approved Constitutional amendment the 5% annual distribution from the Permanent Fund would rise to 6.25%.

The New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee has indicated that could translate to another $236 million for education in the coming fiscal year. Of that $184 million would go to early childhood education while the rest would go to the other priorities listed in both the constitutional amendment and authorizing language inserted into the budget proposal.