ALBUQUERQUE — One recent study ranked New Mexico dead last in the well-being of children, and an advocacy group says two state politicians should shoulder most of the blame.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and Democratic state Sen. John Arthur Smith were not at a community rally Tuesday, but both received an angry earful from a leader of the group Invest in Kids Now.
The harshest criticism was aimed at Smith, a 25-year senator from Deming, who last winter blocked a legislative vote on a proposal to spend more money on early childhood education.
"We're tired of the back door, smoke-filled-room, closed-door, good-ole-boy meetings. We want a public hearing on an issue of critical importance," said Allen Sanchez, president and CEO of St. Joseph Community Health, and a leading spokesman for the Invest in Kids Now initiative.
Sanchez said the proposed constitutional amendment would have made the ballot if Smith had granted it a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee that he chairs.
"He's abused his position and he's become a liability to the other legislators. He's hurting the integrity of the process," Sanchez said.
Smith, reached later by phone, said his committee would have voted down the bill, so he decided not to allow a hearing to protect fellow senators from criticism.
"I'm the one being persecuted by Allen Sanchez," Smith said. "I don't want my committee members subjected to that."
Smith said he could not argue against the importance of early childhood education. But, he said, Sanchez and others are advocating a destructive proposal from a financial standpoint. He said it was not "responsible fiscal policy" to spend more out of the permanent fund to enhance early childhood programs.
"There's a ton of stuff I would like to fund more, but I don't have the money," Smith said.
Sanchez said voters should be allowed to make the decision on whether they want to spend their money to enhance early childhood programs.
His group wants to allocate about $110 million a year for 10 years for early childhood education. The state's endowments, or permanent funds, now total about $16 billion and would still double by 2031, even with the investment in small children, Sanchez said.
He said the expenditure would help more kids succeed in school. In turn, fewer would get in trouble with the law and the numbers of taxpayers with good jobs would increase, Sanchez said.
In the long term, investing in kids would be financially beneficial to the state, he said.
For his part, Smith said the Legislature during the last two years has added about $60 million to early childhood programs. That move was wise financially because it did not dip into a state endowment, he said.
Under the proposal that Sanchez and others in his group advocate, 6.5 percent from the endowment's investment earnings would be used for education. Most of it, 5.5 percent, would continue going to public schools. One percent would be added to early childhood programs.
Smith said spending more than 5 percent from the endowment would erode it, crippling the state down the line when extraction industries that generate much of the money decline.
He cited university endowments such as Stanford's as models that recommend no more than a 5 percent upper limit on spending.
In a room at St. Joseph Community Health that was filled with about 250 people, about a third of them small children, Sanchez said Smith had come to see himself as all-powerful in determining how the public's money should be spent. Sanchez promised to put public pressure on Smith in next year's 30-day legislative session to allow a vote on the early childhood initiative.
The measure cleared the House of Representatives last winter before Smith declined to hear it in his Senate committee.
Sanchez also criticized Martinez, though less harshly than Smith.
Sanchez said the state had dropped from 46th to 50th for child well-being since Martinez became governor in 2011. Martinez, like Smith, opposes using more money from state endowments for early childhood education.
New Mexico's last-place ranking in child well-being appeared in June in the annual Kids Count Data Book, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore.
New Mexico has never ranked above 40th in the publication's 20-year history, but this was the first time the state has been last. New Mexico ranked 49th in 2012, ahead of only Mississippi.
Martinez's press secretary, Enrique Knell, said she did not support "raiding" an endowment designed for public education funding.
"The permanent fund was not intended to be used in this manner. Since taking office, Gov. Martinez has significantly increased funding for education, calling for greater investments in education than the Legislature has in many cases," Knell said.
Three Democratic legislators from Albuquerque appeared at the rally. Reps. Rick Miera and Antonio Maestas and Sen. Michael Padilla are among the strongest supporters of using money from the endowment for early childhood programs.
Sanchez said Miera had pledged to try to move the bill through the House of Representatives in the first 10 days of next year's 30-day session. This, Sanchez said, would put pressure on Smith to let the bill be heard by senators.
If the proposal gets a vote of the full Senate, Sanchez said, it will make the ballot.
Milan Simonich is the Santa Fe bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers. He can be reached at 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.