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Early Childhood Education: A Wussy Way to Kill a Bill (VIDEO)

Sarah Kennedy has some thoughts about Senator Carlos Cisneros and the role he played in killing the Early Childhood Education constitutional amendment during the legislative session. Watch the video, then scroll down for the back story to Sen. Cisneros’ act of legicide.

Cisneros’ motion “to temporarily table without prejudice” deserves further comment.

Two words suffice: laughably mendacious.

To table a bill means to kill it — especially with just three days left in the session.

Yes, there’s more to the story

The fight for Senate Joint Resolution 12 (SJR12) was a significant high point — as well as a low one — of the past legislative session. The high came when the powerful Senate Finance Committee (SFC), after two years of obstruction, finally took up the measure that would allow voters to decide whether to divert a tiny percentage of New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent (School) Fund for early childhood education and development programs.

And the low? The committee ended up killing SJR12 as Sarah explained.

The Indicator of Shame – 50th in Child Well-being

To put the situation in broader context: New Mexico ranks 50th in the nation in the indicators of child well-being. That statistic, and all the human costs which it entails, underscores the enormity of the crisis confronting us.

In the previous two sessions, legislation like SJR12 could never advance to the floor for a full senate vote simply because Senator John Arthur Smith, the committee’s chairman, refused to give the bill a hearing. He wouldn’t even let it in the committee room door, much less hear it.

After the 2013 session, Smith admitted his inaction on the bill was quite deliberate. He told the press that such obstruction was necessary because he had to protect members of his committee who didn’t want to be put on the spot by taking a public vote on the issue.

Of course, that begged the obvious question: If you’re protecting your fellow politicians from accountability, then who’s protecting the kids?

In an effort to jimmy those doors open, the Center for Civic Policy launched a civic engagement campaign in the summer of 2013. Its purpose was to inform constituents in Chairman Smith’s district about the early childhood legislation and of his blocking tactics. Constituencies of other committee members were similarly engaged around the state.

Folks were asked to study and discuss the issue, then call their senators and urge them to hear the bill.

Here’s just one example from that civic engagement campaign — a radio spot entitled “Pretty Please” that the Center produced and aired in Smith’s district:

The ensuing public pressure — phone calls, emails and uncomfortable encounters at the local super market between startled senators and concerned constituents — did the trick. It’s what brought us to the fateful evening of Monday, February 17, 2014 at 6:07 PM. This was the hour that SJR12, which had sailed through two prior Senate committees (Rules and Judiciary), was finally “granted” its moment in SFC — three days before the end of the session.

SJR12’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, made an eloquent presentation on the imperative need for a robust early childhood development program to address the state’s child well-being crisis. Senator Michael Padilla followed Sanchez with remarks noteworthy for their passion.

Economist Vicente Feliciano was there to present the findings of his report that showed negligible impact on the $13 billion dollar permanent fund from the approximately 100 million dollar annual investment in our kids that would result from the bill.

And in the public gallery, the supporters of the bill far outnumbered the opposition.

Would the committee members use this long-anticipated opportunity thus afforded them to discuss, question and debate the merits of the legislation — in truest deliberative traditions of that august upper chamber?

For the most part, they did not.

With the most notable exceptions being Senators Nancy Rodriguez and Howie Morales, the members who chose to speak used their time to complain about the “attack ads” (“Pretty please” is an attack?) and anything that so much as implied public criticism of legislators’ stands on the issues or any other the official acts they might have taken.

It was one heckuva pity party.

Say what, Senator Cisneros?

Here is some of what Senator Cisneros had to say, taken from an audio recording of the committee meeting (punctuation added for clarity):

That has been unprecedented at least in my tenure in the course of the last 29 years in the legislature to witness an attack on a member of the legislature. It was unfortunate and certainly uncalled for and and perhaps unmitigated. The problem there Mr Chairman is that we all take votes in this legislative process, sometimes some that are emotional and perhaps difficult to take but we certainly don’t expect folks for whatever reason to attack anyone. If anything you need to inspect the entire legislative process, but certainly not an individual and certainly not specific and not political by the use of media or radio or billboards or even signs directed at any one individual because we all work in tandem as best we can given the information that we have. We are a citizen legislature. We’re not paid for what we do. We don’t have an opportunity to spend countless endless hours trying to decipher what is in the best interest and what is not. Mr. Chairman I just wanted to voice that aspect of it because I felt it was unfairly directed at you and perhaps other members of the legislature but clearly unfairly directed.

Cisneros went on like this for a while longer. He concluded with made this striking comment:

But clearly to attack any one member of this legislature for either hosting or not hosting a hearing here. We’ve done so today. It went essentially uneventful. We heard the issue today. I think most of us know it. And clearly that’s the way to do business.

There’s quite a bit to unpack here both for childhood education advocates, as well as the public — anyone concerned about fair and open legislative process.

For one thing, Cisneros’ remarks conveyed an unmistakable tone that could be taken to suggest that supporters of early childhood education in New Mexico would do well to just mind their manners. After all, “that’s the way to do business.”

This hardly squares with the obvious fact that Chairman Smith and Vice Chair Cisneros only relented and “hosted” the SJR12 hearing after the public had been engaged via the informational issue campaign (i.e. those “attacks” that were “uncalled for”).

Secondly, there is a glaring contradiction embedded in Cisneros’ statement.

Was Cisneros saying that he (and presumably his colleagues) lack the time and resources to determine what’s in the “best interest” of New Mexico’s working families? If so, then why the two-year long delay to get a hearing — a hearing in which he might learn something to aid in making such a determination?

On other hand, was this “uneventful” hearing really just a waste of time because “most of us know” so much about the issue?

So which is it? He knew too little about the subject — or he knew everything there was to know, thank you very much!

Moving forward

No doubt about it. Finance Committee in the New Mexico State Senate is a hard place “to do business” these days under its current leadership. It’s where good bills go to die — if they’re even heard in the first place. Chairman Smith’s powerful position gives him immense leverage over its members, as well as the entire body.

For Smith, austerity will always trump public investment; corporate tax breaks and giveaways are his preferred solution for just about everything else.

He treats the state’s permanent fund like it was his own personal hoard. Repeatedly he insists his aim is to “protect it for future generations” — to do what with, only Heaven and Chairman Smith would seem to know.

Unfortunately for this generation of young kids, battered by the vicissitudes of worst in the nation poverty and worst in the nation income inequality, time is already running out fast.

And so when these kids get to the third grade and — surprise, surprise — they fall behind because they were already behind when they started back in the kindergarten.

Then when these same can’t read at grade level, they become fodder for the education “reform” scheme of Governor Susana Martinez and her Jeb Bush inspired Florida import Ed Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera. Hold them back for “remedial” help.

What a waste.

Next Phase

The Center for Center Civic Policy has launched the accountability phase of its civic engagement campaign for early childhood education.

Here’s a link to the full page ad that ran in the Taos News on March 6th.

Maybe next year, the voices of aroused constituents will succeed in convincing the members of Senate Finance to give the bill a fair hearing on the merits and then move it to the full Senate for an actual up or down vote.

This means the fight to address New Mexico’s crisis of child well-being will continue on into the spring, the summer and the fall.

And something else worth recalling: The arc of the moral universe is a long one. This Finance Committee hearing for SJR12 represented a small, but very real, movement along that arc.  one. But we are taught that the arc bends toward justice. It’s what we’re counting on.

Postscript: To learn more about the Early Childhood Education issue, check out the Center’s hand resource site: When Will They Ever Learn.

Post Postscript:
In responding to the newspaper ad, Cisneros used the Albuquerque Journal (March 7) to channel Chairman Smith in leveling the following accusation:

“…backers of the plan to earmark funds for early childhood programs from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund want to spend money like ‘drunken sailors.'”

Spending like drunken sailors? Where have we heard that one before?

A formulation borrowed from V.B. Price at New Mexico Mercury seems most apt at this point. Writing about the recent congressional cuts to the food stamp program, Price opined:

These people in Congress cut other folks’ food supplies while spending like the proverbial drunken sailor on the pampered and privileged industries that give their election campaigns enough money to feed whole populations of poor people.


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