Describing the litany of challenges, economic strife and changes to New Mexico’s public school system spurred by the novel coronavirus, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Tuesday the state must “double down” on investments in early childhood education and care programs.
The governor capped off a 30-minute keynote speech for a virtual conference on child well-being with an impassioned call to retain investments in the new Early Childhood Education and Care Department despite declining state revenues in a slumped oil and gas market.
State economists project a $991 million state budget gap for the next fiscal year.
“The skeptics and the challengers are loud. But we have the facts and the families on our side,” Lujan Grisham said, calling for a renewed commitment to investing in “a system that continues its focus on children and families” during the 2021 legislative session.
The governor’s comments came at the beginning of a videoconference organized by New Mexico Voices for Children, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit that advocates for policy solutions to reduce childhood poverty and improve the quality of life for children.
Lujan Grisham urged those participating in the conference to recommit to policies aimed at leveling the playing field for communities of color years down the road, even as the state faces the immediate needs of responding to the pandemic with limited resources.
Revenues are declining from the struggling oil and gas market, which funds roughly 40 percent of New Mexico’s budget, and less money is coming into the state from gross receipts taxes.
“The last two years pre-COVID were phenomenal, and we had great successes,” Lujan Grisham said. “And I don’t want us, as we’re building unity, to forget how far we have already come.”
While the results of those successes “aren’t tangible today in the pandemic does not mean that they’re not real or that they’re not readily available to us as we address the next frontier,” she added.
During her speech, Lujan Grisham called attention to Republicans in the Legislature who wanted deeper cuts to the state budget and were reluctant to fund the new Early Childhood Education and Care Department, which was a priority for the governor and many leading Democratic state lawmakers earlier this year.
The governor noted the debate over whether to continue funding the department, which in July took over services for children from prenatal to age 5, is likely to continue with a renewed urgency during the 60-day legislative session that begins in January 2021.
Lawmakers will likely revisit funding priorities for the state at a time when it has fewer financial resources than it did in January 2020.
“There are going to be detractors who say we can’t invest the way that we were; that we have to stall out our early childhood education design; that we can’t invest in enriching the educational experience; that we can’t reach our moonshot; that it is all has to be put on hold; that we can’t make investments in the state because we’re in the hole $1 billion plus going into FY ’21,” the governor said.
“There will be skeptics in the Legislature who have long not supported investing in anti-poverty, in investing in education, in health care, in social programs, in equality, in equity,” she said.
“And at the other side, we know the statistics speak for themselves. When you make those investments, you make a difference.”