ALBUQUERQUE — Demonstrators interrupted a legislative hearing Thursday, shouting that Mississippi loves New Mexico state Sen. John Arthur Smith.
The protesters, adults leading a couple dozen children, said Smith bore responsibility for New Mexico dropping to a last-place ranking in early childhood well-being, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count report. Mississippi rated 50th the year before, one place behind New Mexico.
Protesters distributed "thank-you cards" smearing Smith with sarcasm. They were signed, "With love, the people of Mississippi."
Smith had a calm but sharp public response for the protesters. He said common courtesy was part of education, and that the demonstrators lacked it.
Smith, D-Deming, last winter refused to give a hearing to a bill that would have allocated $110 million a year to programs for infants and children up to 5 years old. Funding would have come from the state's $11 billion land-grant endowment.
Without the hearing in Smith's Senate Finance Committee, the bill died during the last two days of the legislative session.
Demonstrators said Smith had strangled the democratic process and hurt small children.
In an interview outside the hearing room at the University of New Mexico, Smith repeated that he did not want his committee members subjected to criticism for votes they might have cast on the education bill, so he unilaterally killed it.
He said he did what he considered financially responsible.
"I was elected to be careful with the people's money," he said.
Dipping into the land-grant endowment for early childhood programs is not smart from a financial standpoint, he said. Smith maintains that it would deplete the account and hurt the state in the long run.
Miguel A. Gomez, of St. Joseph Community Health, supports using the endowment to help small children get a good start in life. Gomez said Smith was misleading the public about the financial implications of using more money from the endowment.
Smith compares New Mexico's fund to endowments at universities, Gomez said. But university endowments grow primarily through interest income. New Mexico's fund also receives royalties from the oil and gas industry, meaning it grows more and more rapidly than the funds that Smith tries to compare it with, Gomez said.
Smith also says the Legislature has poured millions more into early childhood programs in recent years, but Gomez says funding levels are still lower than they were before the 2008 financial crisis that led to funding cutbacks.
Proponents of adding money from the endowment to early childhood programs plan to try again in 2014. Their proposal cleared the House of Representatives this year before Smith killed it in his Senate committee.
Milan Simonich is the Santa Fe bureau chief for Texas-New Mexico Newspapers. He can be reached at 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.