Amendment 2 still up in air late this morning

By The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE – Voters have agreed to put Gov. Bill Richardson in charge of public schools but his proposal to fund his educational agenda was up in the air Wednesday.

Changes in vote totals from some New Mexico counties caused the closely contested money issue to flipflop throughout the morning.

The latest unofficial figures showed the measure trailing by about 50 votes.

Dona Ana and Chaves counties reported changed numbers Wednesday morning for Tuesday’s special election on two education-related constitutional amendments. Sandoval County said it had transposed the results it had sent to the secretary of state.

Sandoval County’s transposed results would have had the measure failing. When the county fixed the figures, the amendment was in the yes column again.

Then Dona Ana and Chaves counties reported revised figures.

Richardson, at the outset of a news conference Wednesday, acknowledged the amendment was too close to call.

Sandoval County also was awaiting a court order to unlock two uncounted Rio Rancho precincts. They could not say how many votes those boxes contained.

Voters overwhelmingly adopted the other constitutional amendment to overhaul the governing system for public schools and create a cabinet-level secretary of education. It passed with 55 percent of the voters statewide favoring it.

Late Tuesday night, Sandoval County reported a major shift in returns that would have tilted the statewide tally against the funding proposal. Because of the shift, The Associated Press did not include those end-of-night results until they could be confirmed.

Sandoval County confirmed those results Wednesday to the secretary of state’s office _ but county officials then reported the yes and no votes had been reversed.

“We reversed the numbers,” county election official Eddie Gutierrez said.

Before the error was found, the proposal to boost the annual distribution rate from the Land Grant Permanent Fund had been behind by nearly 1,800 votes with 99 percent of precincts reporting.

The corrected count put the proposal ahead by just over 900 votes.

County Clerk Victoria Dunlap blamed human error and a computer program.

She said when the county punched in with “for” votes first and “against” votes second. But the computer program tallies total votes in alphabetical order, so the “against” tally appeared first.

The special election represented the first test at the ballot box of Richardson and his policies since he took office in January. The Democratic governor succeeded in pushing a long list of initiatives through the Legislature earlier this year, highlighted by a $360 million income tax cut he championed as a tool to recruit new high-wage industries.

Richardson and an unusual coalition of education and business groups and labor unions campaigned for the constitutional changes as a package to improve school performance in New Mexico. The pro-amendment alliance spent more than $1.2 million on a blitz of television and radio ads and an extensive get-out-the-vote drive.

“Voters said yes to changing our education system, and the true winners will be New Mexico’s children and New Mexico’s future,” Richardson said Wednesday of the governance change.

He pledged to use his new authority to streamline education policy-making and ensure that a greater share of state aid to schools went to classrooms rather than administration.

The state Republican Party and Land Commissioner Pat Lyons led opposition to the permanent fund change, likening the higher payouts from the $6.8 billion fund to stealing money from future generations. Historically, the fund has been operated like an endowment to provide a stable source of financing for decades to come.

In addition to investment earnings, the permanent fund receives royalties from oil and natural gas production, mining and other income from land given to the state by the federal government.

GOP chairwoman Ramsay Gorham said opponents succeeded just by keeping the vote close. She estimated the GOP spent only about $120,000 in fighting the proposal, including statewide radio ads.

The GOP supported the education secretary amendment, a proposal advanced by former GOP Gov. Gary Johnson during his two terms but opposed by the Democratic-led Legislature.

Opposition to both proposals was strongest in conservative-leaning counties in eastern and southern New Mexico.

Urban centers such as Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties and several Democratic strongholds in northern New Mexico favored the permanent fund measure.

The governance measure would turn over control of education policy and regulation of public schools to Richardson by creating a governor-appointed secretary of education to run the state Department of Education. The secretary would replace the elective state Board of Education, which sets statewide policies that locally elected school boards must follow.

Richardson on Wednesday named an interim education secretary and a committee to find a permanent one.

Proponents of the permanent fund change estimated higher distributions would deliver more than $600 million to public schools over 12 years.

The extra money would pay for newly enacted reforms, such as higher minimum teacher salaries _ up to $50,000 a year for a so-called master teacher _ tied to a new competency-based licensing system. However, the money also would help the governor and lawmakers plug a looming budget shortfall in the coming year.