Blazed Through the Back of the Ballot

Voters approve plan to use more permanent fund cash for education, plus two other constitutional amendments and all bonds

Though the idea of taking a bigger chunk of the state’s permanent fund has for years been labeled as a derogatory “raid,” it’s now clear that New Mexico voters are all for the raiding when it means more resources for education.

According to early, unofficial results posted online by the Secretary of State’s Office, voters approved three proposed amendments to the state constitution on the general election ballot.

Amendment 1, which shifts money in the Land Grant Permanent Fund largely derived from oil and gas royalties into early childhood programs and public schools, earned approval from about 70% of voters.

The amendment increases disbursement cash from the investment of fund—valued at $24 billion in last month’s report from the State Investment Council—from 5% to 6.25%, with 40% of the new distribution going to pay for education needs of at-risk students and 60% toward early-childhood education. If the fund drops below $17 billion, the provision would pause. However, the US Congress, which authorized the fund, also would need to approve the change before distributions begin.

At present rates, the new distribution will amount to more than $200 million per year, and the lion’s share would move into the cabinet-level state Early Childhood Education and Care Department established just two years ago.

Though it’s a smaller portion of the new disbursement, money earmarked for at-risk students will help the state directly respond to a 2018 court ruling on education. A District Court judge determined in Martinez/Yazzie v New Mexico that the state has failed to properly allocate funding for its entire school system and in particular for at-risk students, English language learners, Native American students and special education students.

After nearly a decade of attempts, proponents of the increase finally swayed conservative Democrats in the Legislature to jump on board. The Senate Finance Committee, for years chaired by Democrat John Arthur Smith of Deming, and an adamant opponent of tapping the fund, has historically been a major roadblock for the proposal. After Smith lost the seat in a primary election two years ago, Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, took the helm of the key legislative committee and voted to get the proposed amendment over the long-time hurdle in March 2021.

Proponents of further tapping the permanent fund include the state Democratic Party and the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops—two groups who are at odds when it comes to abortion access.

“Over a decade of work by advocates, parents, teachers, elected officials, and a community of people who care about the futures of our children have led to this incredible victory. And tonight voters across New Mexico have made their voices heard,” Oriana Sandoval, director of the Center for Civic Policy, said in a statement. “There is a clear mandate to create a better education system for generations to come. The opportunity for investment into our kids and families that this win affords us cannot be overstated, and we are grateful to the voters who made this happen. This win opens the door to transformational change for New Mexico’s families.”

While a bigger investment from the fund has clear short-term benefits, an analysis by the Legislative Council Service pointed out that there’s no guarantee adoption would have a lasting effect on money available for education, as a future Legislature could easily vote to remove other sources of funding. Mathematical analysis indicates the fund will hit a tipping point around 2040, after which the corpus diminishes and the amount of disbursements to all beneficiaries begins to drop for the life of the fund.

The second amendment adopted by voters was far less publicized and controversial, yet to advocates such as Camilla Feibelman, director of the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter, its approval by 65% of voters was an important step for the state.

Amendment 2 adds an exception to the constitution’s anti-donation clause to appropriate state funds for infrastructure that provides essential services such as internet, energy, water or wastewater. For Feibelman’s organization, that means essential support for a mission to alleviate the energy burden for low-income families. The state already allocates money that’s available for counties to administer for home improvement projects and simple weatherization to help with energy efficiency and lower heating bills, but the amendment will allow for more strategic direct aid, she said.

“It’s such a complex issue…Voters have said they understand that sometimes the public just needs help. We have seen that so much in the last year with COVID-19 and the cost of child care and the cost of utility bills. We are a state that gives a helping hand when needed,” she said late Tuesday.

Lastly, voters gave the nod to Amendment 3 with about 69% of votes. Its passage changes the timeline for when the state’s appointed judges must stand for election. The governor appoints judges to fill vacancies, which typically occur when other judges retire. There’s already a nonpartisan nominating committee that statutorily vets candidates for the governor to choose from, but the state constitution currently requires appointed judges to campaign in the next general election after appointment if they want to keep their jobs. The amendment approved by voters will give them more time, allowing a full year of service before election is required.

Also on the back of the ballot were three statewide general obligation bonds ($24.47 million for senior centers; $19.3 million for public libraries; $215 million for public higher education, special public schools and tribal schools) and three Santa Fe County bonds ($13 million to acquire, construct, design, equip and improve roads; $7 million to acquire real property and necessary water rights for, and to construct, design, equip, rehabilitate and improve water and wastewater projects; $5 million for open space, trails and parks). Voters approved all six, according to early, unofficial results.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong last name for Sandoval.

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