Local official opposes education amendment

Darrell Todd Maurina

A proposed Constitutional amendment that would spend a higher percentage of New Mexico’s land grant permanent fund is bad public policy, according to the state’s commissioner of public lands, Clovis native Patrick Lyons.
Speaking at Thursday’s noon Rotary Club meeting, Lyons said New Mexico risks the future education of its children if it taps a fund that is currently worth $6.7 billion.
“The governor says this is a rainy day fund; there is nowhere in the Constitution that says this is a rainy day fund,” Lyons said. “This is a permanent fund for education in this state.”
The election is Sept. 23.
Portales Municipal School Board Chairman David Brooks said at first he was adamantly opposed to the plan, but has since changed his mind after hearing the details from Sen. Stuart Ingle and Gov. Bill Richardson.
“My understanding is we’re not going to get into the actual principal of the fund, but that the schools may be getting extra funds from interest that would typically go to a different state entity,” Brooks said. “The governor explained we would only be using interest, and there is supposedly a fail safe, that if the interest falls below a certain point … then we will go back to getting the amount we’re getting now.”
Sen. Ingle of Portales could not be reached for comment late Thursday night.
According to an analysis by the New Mexico Legislative Council Service, the fund dates back to New Mexico’s days before statehood when the U.S. Congress voted in 1898 and 1910 to give New Mexico 9 million acres of surface land and 13 million acres of underground mineral rights. Money received from such activities as oil drilling, natural gas production, and livestock grazing is deposited into a special fund and 4.7 percent of the fund’s five-year average balance is withdrawn each year for 21 different purposes, mostly related to education. In the 2002 fiscal year, $312 million was withdrawn and $256 went to public school. The proposed amendment being pushed by Gov. Bill Richardson would increase the withdrawals to 5.8 percent from 2005 to 2012 and 5.5 percent from 2013 to 2016.
Lyons, backed by a unanimous vote of the State Land Trust Advisory Board, opposed that increase and said fund managers advised that withdrawals greater than 5 percent risk depleting the fund balance.
“The liberals took over California in the 1960s and they spent their permanent fund down to zero,” Lyons said. “Why is the education of today’s children more important than tomorrow’s children? It isn’t. That’s why we have a permanent fund for today, tomorrow, and the future.”
Clovis businessman Greg Southard asked whether state officials had calculated how much money would be lost by increased withdrawals and lost compound interest.
“By 2016 we would have $3 billion less than we have now if this goes through,” Lyons said.
“It strikes me that 100 years ago when our state Legislators were drafting our constitution, they came up with a wonderful way to fund education,” Southard said. “We are swiping what doesn’t belong to us.”
“You’re absolutely right, and that is why this is a bad idea,” Lyons said.
Lonnie Leslie, assistant superintendent for operations in the Clovis school district, said the reason behind the proposed amendment was that the state has required increased teacher salaries but not provided the money to pay for them.
“The governor has put us in a terrible position,” Leslie said, noting that Clovis was forced to cut 10 positions this year and may have to cut 20 next year without a new source of funds.
“I’m not against education,” Lyons said. “I’ve been labeled as against education but that’s not true. My wife is a school teacher, I’ve got three kids in schools, I want to see more funding for schools, I just don’t like this funding scheme.”

PNT Managing Editor Mike Linn contributed to this story.