Amendment answers lie in the past

Clint Harden

After serving as the Cabinet Secretary for New Mexico’s Department of Labor for eight years and now as the State Senator for District Seven, I have crisscrossed this state talking and listening to hundreds if not thousands of New Mexicans. What I have heard is the top priorities of the state are water, healthcare, education and job creation and pretty much in that order.
On Tuesday, we will vote on amendments to our state’s Constitution, which address education. During the 46th Legislative session, I voted in favor of placing the two amendments on the ballot. In my opinion, these amendments will allow the public to make a responsible decision on changes in both form and funding of this state’s education system.
Amendment 1 addresses the organizational context and structural form of the education system. Essentially the major change this amendment will bring about is to establish a single point of accountability by replacing the Superintendent of Schools with a Cabinet Secretary of Education hired by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. The amendment also changes the method by which state school board members are selected.
The current state school board is part elected and part appointed. The new State School Commission will be elected, and will be comprised of members from each district.
It has been said that if you continue to do what you have always done you will continue to get what you have always got. A change in organizational structure to deal with the constitutional separateness in our current system was a priority of Gov. Gary Johnson’s administration. I have found the people within our education system, including administrators, support personnel and teachers are talented, well educated and extremely dedicated. What these people need is a less bureaucratic structure in which to work.
For the first time since 1986, when the current system was set up, we will all know where the responsibility for the education of our children rests. It rests on the desk of the governor, whoever the governor may be.
The second amendment addresses funding. Opponents are calling this a raid on the state’s Permanent Fund. Proponents claim this statement is simply not true. Frankly, I am not sure whose crystal ball is the best predictor of the future, so I have looked to the past. Prior to 1996 the independent State Investment Board voted the amount of money to be distributed from the fund. The highest distribution was 9.2 percent in 1982.
In 1996 a constitutional amendment was passed that established a 4.7 percent withdrawal from the fund each year. The amendment took away the control of distribution from the State Investment Board and set a defined percentage of distribution that could be budgeted for each year.
The proposed 2003 Amendment 2 raises the percentage of money that can be used, from 4.7 percent to 5.8 percent over a period of eight years, dropping to 5.5 percent for four years and down to 5 percent after a 12-year period.
There are some safeguards built into the proposed distribution structure to help insure the integrity of the fund, which were not included in the 1996 amendment. These safeguards are as follows:
1. The additional funds that will be produced from this increase in distribution can only be used for educational reform measures. 2. Any time during the 12-year period of additional distribution, should the value of the fund fall below $5.8 billion, the distribution automatically reverts to 5 percent. 3. The legislature, by an absolute three-fifths vote, can suspend payment of the additional distribution if something goes wrong.
If this complex issue can be simply stated we, as voters, are being asked to decide if this 1.1 percent increase in distribution will spend the fund down to levels that will place future children’s education in jeopardy.
In my opinion the answer, once again, lies in the past.
Since 1988, the fund has grown from $2.7 billion to $6.6 billion and the total return is 9.8 percent for an average return of 9.2 percent. If the fund returns a rate of 8.5 percent (less than the average return since 1988) at the proposed rate of distribution specified in Amendment 2, the fund will grow to $14.5 billion by the year 2021.
Simply throwing more money at a problem is never an answer, unless the problem is under funding. If we are to bring about educational reform, the price tag will be great. The cost of education, like the price of gas, food and utilities will continue to increase. The difficult question we must answer is how to fund true systemic education reform without a tax increase.
In my opinion, Amendments 1 and 2 are based on sound conservation principles for “future” children and more adequate funding for “today’s” children. Passage of constitutional Amendments 1 and 2 will bring about changes in the organizational structure of the system and an increase in dollars needed to fund reform initiatives.

Clint Harden is a Republican state Senator whose districts include Curry and Quay counties. He can be contacted at 389-1248.