New Mexico’s Budget Crisis: “It’s No Laughing Matter” (RADIO SPOT)

With the prospect of a special session of the legislature fast approaching to address a looming budget crisis, the Center for Civic Policy is running this radio ad in selected areas of the state which offers our take on the issue and calls upon constituents to take action:

A thirty-second radio spot can hardly do justice to this fiscal train wreck. A bit of context is in order.

The State of New Mexico faces a serious budget deficit as the result of a shortfall in revenues. Revenue projections made back in January were overly optimistic, it seems. It now appears certain that Governor Martinez soon will call a special session of the legislature to fix a growing budget crisis.

The Governor’s answer is a 5 percent across the board cut in funding for state agencies. New revenues are off the table, she says.

To call this approach unwise would be an understatement. How about unconscionable.

Consider these facts about the quagmire in which New Mexico finds itself:

  • 49th in child poverty
  • K-12 funding is nearly 11% less per student than pre-2008 recession levels
  • 7,000 fewer children fewer children receive child care assistance than in 2010
  • Medicaid was already underfunded this year by $86 million, causing cuts of over $400 million in health care services when lost federal matching dollars are included.
  • Low- and middle-income New Mexicans pay twice the rate in state and local taxes as the richest 1 percent.

We could go on and on.

Low oil prices are cited as the cause of the crisis. But overlooked in the midst of all the hand-wringing, are the horribly irresponsible tax policies enacted in recent years.

The cold hard truth of the matter is this: The Governor is determined to protect her prized corporate tax giveaways by making New Mexico’s working families pay for them.

In 2013 Governor Martinez and the legislature gave huge tax cuts and tax breaks to large corporations, many of them out-of-state. These so-called “business incentives” were supposed to cause an explosion of job creation.

Well, it hasn’t worked. They just took the money and ran.

Today New Mexico has the 3rd highest jobless rate in the nation.

It stands to reason that our continuing underinvestment in education and healthcare is making New Mexico a less than desirable place for companies that are looking for a place to relocate.

A better answer is for legislators to say “no” to more cuts. It’s time to make corporations and the well-connected pay their fair share.

 

Our baby steps toward expanding early childhood services are not getting us far

By Bill Jordan, MA, is Senior Policy Advisor/Governmental Relations for NM Voices for Children

Thousands of adorable and inquisitive youngsters are trotting off to school for the first time this month.

From all around the state these wide-eyed kiddos are beginning their school adventures. In honor of this new class, we thought we’d look back at how New Mexico prepared them for school, and look forward to how babies born this year will fare in their preschool years.

In 2010, the year this new class was born, 30,733 of New Mexico’s children were enrolled in the state’s early childhood programs that help children prepare for school: home visiting, pre-kindergarten, and child care assistance. If you think that sounds like a lot, it’s actually only about a quarter of all our preschoolers. Think that’s bad? It gets worse.

Despite all the legislative activity around early childhood services, only 28,701 children—or about 2,000 fewer—are benefiting from these same early learning programs this year. Enrollment has increased for both home visiting and pre-K—and that’s great—but nearly 8,000 children have been dropped from the child care assistance roles. That’s especially troubling because that’s the program that serves children for most of their preschool years. While home visiting focuses on the first year or two of life, and pre-K serves only four-year-olds, child care assistance serves kids throughout their preschool years.

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Early Education with a Chance of Precipitation (VIDEO)

Some folks characterize New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent Fund as a “rainy day fund.” Well, if that’s so, the rainy day is here and it’s pouring — that is, when it with respect to our lagging investments in early childhood education.

But we can chase away the stormy weather (as well as the dark and forbidding musical score). Just watch Sarah Kennedy’s latest video to learn the facts about Senate Joint Resolution 9 and House Joint Resolution 15. Both measures are being considered by the legislature NOW:


 

 

Truth or Skandera: Does School Audit Stand Up to Scrutiny?

By Charlotte Chinana

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“I am concerned that the percentages of files reviewed from district to district was not proportionally equal.”

“Our District’s Special Education units for 2011-2012, based on 2010-2011 official counts, decreased by 1.8%. The audit was initially described as an investigation of districts where funding units [had] increased. We are still not sure why our district was selected when our units went down.”

“We have never had the opportunity to refute the findings of the audit.”

“It makes me wonder if it was already predetermined that we would get an in depth audit.”

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These are just some of the comments provided to the state’s Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC), from various district superintendents, regarding the audits conducted by the Public Education Department (PED), under the guidance of Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera.

Back in April of this year, Skandera called for an audit of 34 school districts across the state after her office reported a potential discrepancy related to enrollment data. What you might not recollect (or possibly had no idea it was even happening), was last week’s interim LESC meeting (May 25-27), in which the PED audit results were amongst the highly anticipated topics slated for discussion.

During the interim committee meeting, an analyst for the LESC, Craig Johnson, presented a staff report which highlighted a couple of equally interesting findings. Although supportive of the effort to ensure an accurate distribution of funds, according to Mr. Johnson’s presentation, the LESC staff had a number of concerns regarding the PED’s audit, including questions about:

  • the PED’s selection of districts to be audited, which was based (almost exclusively) on an ‘apples-to-oranges’ comparison of data;
  • selecting only two years worth of data for the audit, vs. a broader analysis of several years of worth of information;
  • why it was necessary to expedite the audit timeline, and whether or not data accuracy could be assured (given the short amount of time self-allocated for the project).

The LESC staff’s sentiment was also echoed by the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC):

“In an April 19 letter, LFC Deputy Director Charles Sallee wrote, ‘The aggressive schedule for the data validation audits, the narrow scope, and limited audit procedures are not designed to fully assess drivers in new reported units, nor identify fraud or gaming of the formula.”

A Tale of Dueling Data Sets

The LESC staff report noted that, while the PED cited a “nearly 116% increase” in the “funding unit” data reported, using a comparison of the 2010-2011 school year, “80th day” reporting data – to the 2011-2012 school year, “80th day” reporting data, in actuality, the PED had compiled its information based on the comparison of the 2011-2012 school year “80th day” reporting data – to the 2010-2011 school year, “80th/120th day” average (or, “final funded numbers”).

According to the PED analysis, the unit increase looks quite substantial:

In a memo dated April 12, the PED noted an “enormous increase” in the number of “funding units” being reported by the state’s school districts, suggested that there had been a questionable  increase in “[funding] unit growth,” despite there being only “1% increase in student enrollment.” This purported increase gave the PED cause for suspicion, and subsequently became a primary reason for conducting the audit.

According to the LESC analysis, the unit increase appears to less drastic:

1The final funded run uses the average of 80th and 120th day data with adjustments for 40th day data on growth and new programs. The preliminary funded run uses the average o 80th and 120th day data with a projection for 40th day numbers.

 

The LESC staff report also noted that the audit methodology used by the PED, wasn’t a “sufficient way to clearly identify suspected instances of formula chasing” (or, “gaming” of the system). It was also observed that the audit procedures and tools used by the PED, focused on an assessment of special education compliance, as opposed to the intended objective of ensuring the accuracy of data reporting for funding purposes.

Reliable Results

In a letter to the PED, dated April 19, the LESC staff outlined several concerns about the focus and expected outcomes of the audit. This included some “reservations about the department’s identification of school districts to be audited,” based on only two years worth of data. According to the letter, LESC staff had suggested that using trend data would give the PED “more useful and telling information about district practices and priorities,” than a two-year comparison:

 

The letter also highlighted a major issue with the April 27 deadline that Skandera’s department set for initial audit findings:

“…LESC staff are concerned not only that this deadline is much sooner than necessary but also that it provides too short a timeframe to examine data sufficiently and to report findings, let alone sufficient time for school districts to respond to the findings.”

According to the LESC staff report, this timeline effectively gave the PED audit team nine working days to conduct the various steps of the audit, AND report its preliminary findings. From the PED’s stand point, it was necessary to conduct the audit quickly, because more than 1/3 of the state’s school districts had been flagged for the audit (as well as 1/3 of the state’s charter schools), and there’s a statutory requirement for budget approval by July 1.

LESC Survey of Audited School Districts

Prior to the May 9th interim committee meeting, the LESC sent out an online survey to the superintendents of the 34 school districts audited, asking for feedback about the process. Of the 34 superintendents that received the survey, 30 responded by May 20th.

From the district response report:

“While some districts expressed support for the audit, survey responses, in general, demonstrated uncertainty or apprehension about the audit. Concerns about the audit expressed by districts in the survey include:

  • media coverage;
  • the nature of the selection process;
  • the short time frame involved; and
  • the response from PED.

Some districts noted that the audit procedures appear disconnected from one of the stated purposes of the audit, which was to identify ‘gaming of the system to receive additional funds.’ “

Through the combination of the online survey results and public testimony provided by several of the district superintendents who came to Santa Fe for the meeting, the LESC, LFC and PED were provided with a plethora of anecdotal feedback, regarding the practicality of using such a truncated timeline. While there was general consensus that timely and accurate reporting of data is a reasonable enough request, many districts expressed concerns ranging from the lack of entrance and exit conferences, to problems encountered while trying to provide documents (i.e. busy fax lines), to the lack of PED asking for a district response to the audit findings (related to any compliance issues their district was flagged for).

“Several districts also noted that the budget review process was affected by the audit, most commonly due to a delay in receiving budget documents from PED.

  • ‘Significantly slowed our ability to complete budget.’
  • ‘Administration delayed work on budget recommendations pending outcome of the special audit based on the possibility that projected membership numbers could be affected.’
  • ‘We did not get our 910B5 until later than usual, and that made it very difficult to get our budget done in a timely fashion.'”

Where Do We Go From Here?

According to the next steps outlined by the PED, an additional in-depth audit will be conducted for nine districts deemed to have a combination of “major compliance issues” along with “severe data quality issues.” Hopefully, the issues raised by the LESC and LFC will be addressed, so that this next round of audits really does ensure that “information is being reported accurately and taxpayer dollars are protected.”

 

 

Community Rallies at Roundhouse for Anti Racism Day

Poet Hakim Bellamy performing in the Capitol Rotunda on Anti Racism Day. Photo by Claus Whiteacre.

By Anthony Fleg, Native Health Initiative

The most important piece of health legislation in this year’s session might just be one without the words Medicaid, health insurance, or the names of any disease conditions in it.

Instead, it is a bill addressing institutional racism, the practices and policies within institutions (e.g schools, courts, hospitals, businesses) that lead to unequal access to resources based on skin color.

A week ago, the health professionals, educators, and community activists of the New Mexico Health Equity Working Group (NMHEWG) rallied for the bill at the first-ever “Anti Racism Day” at the legislature.

House Joint Memorial 32, sponsored by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas (D-Albuquerque) and Sen. Tim Keller (D-Albuquerque) passed its first test, being approved by the House Labor Committee at 8pm on Thursday, February 17th.

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Teach-in on Racism Allows Youth to Pose Tough Questions to School Board Candidates

By Anthony Fleg

As the room got quiet, the high-school student asked with confidence, “Does Albuquerque Public Schools have an anti-racism policy and if so, are you aware of it?”

Many of the professionals seated at the front, all running for the upcoming Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) school board election on February 1st, appeared unprepared for such a question.

This was the energy on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday when over one-hundred people gathered at University of New Mexico’s Law School for the “Teach-in and Candidates Forum” hosted by the Critical Race Theory (CRT) Working Group.

Youth from local high schools, UNM students, staff, and faculty and community members gathered to enhance their understanding of racism and CRT, and then to use the “teach-in” to inform a school board candidates forum.

The program will be broadcast on KUNM’s Youth radio this Sunday from 7-8pm.

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Why We Need To Keep Higher Education Strong In New Mexico

By Tracy Dingmann

Critics of New Mexico’s government spending often point to the state’s higher education system as Exhibit A in their argument that state government spends too much and does not spend wisely. New Mexico has too many colleges and universities offering too many similar programs – and closing some schools and consolidating or scaling back programs at others could save taxpayers millions, they say.

In fact, higher education is a frequent target for those who like to complain that government spends too much. Nationally, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty made big news the other day when he came up with the (widely-panned) idea of replacing brick and mortar classrooms and teachers with “iCollege” courses that could be downloaded any time on a portable device such as an iPhone or iPad.

While it might make for an entertaining hypothetical discussion for some, there are several good reasons why eliminating or scaling back New Mexico’s higher education network would be a very bad idea for New Mexicans.

Higher Education Is A Common Target

First, let’s look at why so many critics of government tend to focus on higher education spending.

In New Mexico, a quick check of U.S. Census numbers from 2007 show it’s likely because that’s where the number of employees are highest.

According to the numbers, New Mexico had 11.5 state and local higher education employees per 1,000 population – ranking the state 2nd in that category among all states.
So why such a high number compared to other states? There are several reasons New Mexico is so committed to higher education and is compelled to provide more access to it than other states.

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Great Info from the 2009 NM KIDS COUNT Book

New Mexico is still one of the lowest-ranked states in the nation in terms of child well-being – and it will only get worse if the state cuts funding for early childhood care and development, quality K-12 education, health care coverage and family supports.

That’s according to the 2009 New Mexico KIDS COUNT book released last week by New Mexico Voices for Children, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization advocating for policies to improve the health and well-being of New Mexico’s children, families and communities.

The New Mexico KIDS COUNT is a program of New Mexico Voices for Children and is made possible by grants from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Taking good care of the state’s children is important for kids, but it also has an effect on the state’s economic base and everyone’s quality of life, the report concluded.

That’s important information right now, as the state Legislature meets to decide how to close a gaping budget gap for the fiscal year 2011.  Some legislators say the state should cut its way to solvency, while others say the state is losing millions in revenue though tax breaks and incentives for corporations.

According to the 2009 New Mexico KIDS COUNT book, New Mexico has the fourth highest rate of children without health insurance, more than one-quarter of its children live in poverty, and only four other states have a higher percentage of families who are hungry or “food insecure.”

Though quality childcare is critical for parents to work or train for jobs, state funding to help low-income families afford childcare has been severely cut back, the report said. Despite the fact that high-quality early childhood education programs provide the stimulation needed for healthy growth and brain development, New Mexico only allocates about 1.8 percent of its budget to support this.

“Research shows that good quality early childhood programs not only prepare children for success in school and life, but also give society a return on investment of up to $16 for each $1 spent,” said Gerry Bradley, Research Director for New Mexico Voices. “It’s one of the most cost-effective things we can do, since we’ll lower dropout rates, reduce crime, and improve employment rates over time.”

Christine Hollis, New Mexico Voices for Children’s KIDS COUNT Director, said, “Long-term studies show that high quality early childhood care and development; a first-rate K-12 educational system that graduates all students; quality health care with affordable health insurance; and effective family support systems provide social and economic benefits for all residents by reducing crime, dependence on welfare, and the other ills associated with poverty.”

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