Early Childhood Education and Care Department Communications Director Micah McCoy and his son, Hezekiah Liu McCoy, celebrate the announcement that Constitutional Amendment 1 had been called at a watch party in Downtown Albuquerque on Tuesday. Voters overwhelmingly approved Constitutional Amendment 1 to increase money for early childhood education by a wide margin. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

After more than a decade of debate, New Mexico voters overwhelmingly said yes to a constitutional amendment that would boost spending by almost $150 million next year for early childhood education.

Journal pollster Brian Sanderoff said the measure had passed about an hour after polls closed Tuesday.

“I feel very excited,” said Alma Ortiz, a mother of three, about early results. “This is very helpful for me and my family.”

As of about 10:45 p.m., the amendment was winning 70% to 30%.

The lobby of Hotel Andaluz roared with approval as news of the race being called was broken to over 100 people attending a watch party. Among them were families and early childhood education officials, who joined in chants of “Sí se pudo,” which means “Yes we could.”

A gaggle of children held up their index fingers to represent what CHI St. Joseph’s Children President Allen Sanchez called their newly-found “No. 1” status from the passage of the amendment.

“We connected the sacred land to the sacred children,” Sanchez said.

The amendment would increase the annual distributions from the permanent school fund — the largest component of the land grant permanent fund — by 1.25 percentage points to 6.25% for educational purposes.

Next summer, that would come out to about $140 million for early childhood education and $90 million for public schools in general, according to recent projections.

The change to New Mexico’s constitution has been the subject of debate for over 10 years at the Roundhouse. Lawmakers signed off on a constitutional amendment last year, putting the decision in the hands of voters. Congress will still need to sign off on the change, but U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich said he had no doubt it would pass.

“Let’s use stable and predictable funding sources to build the prenatal to 5 early childhood system in New Mexico, so that our providers and our families know they can count on it,” Early Childhood Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky has said. “This is the most critical and rapid period of development in a human’s life, and when that beginning is on shaky ground, and it’s not well supported, we see the outcomes.”

Opponents say the additional funds aren’t needed, in part because state lawmakers already established a trust fund dedicated to early childhood education. They also argued that increasing the annual distribution would mean less money in the long run for New Mexico children than if the 5% rate is left alone.

“It’s a lose-lose, because we will have more money than … we can responsibly spend, and we harm future children,” said Sen. William Sharer, a Farmington Republican.

Other amendments, bonds

Constitutional Amendment 1 wasn’t the only measure before New Mexico voters Tuesday.

Two other amendments — both of which were passed by state lawmakers earlier this year — and three general obligation bonds seemed poised to pass.

All told, the amendments and bonds would provide close to $500 million in funds for early childhood education, libraries and higher education projects.

“Yes” votes for Constitutional Amendment 2 led “no” votes 65% to 35%, respectively. That measure would change the state’s anti-donation clause to allow New Mexico to spend public funds on essential utilities like internet, electricity and water.

Supporters have argued that the amendment would boost New Mexicans’ access to those utilities, especially for rural communities. Opponents argue the exceptions the amendment would provide are too broad, and may not safeguard public dollars.

Constitutional Amendment 3 was also ahead in early returns, with 68% of counted votes supporting the measure. If approved, the amendment would delay the election for appointed judges by at least a year.

State judges are appointed by the governor from a screened list, and are then candidates in the next election. But as it currently stands, judges sometimes have to face election shortly after they’re appointed, which some have said makes it difficult for voters to be able to judge their performance.

Opponents point out that the amendment could mean that appointed judges sit on the bench for up to three years before voters decide on whether to keep them, and that the amendment is unclear about which judges it applies to, which could possibly trigger litigation.

Three general obligation bonds on the ballot also seemed likely to pass, as of 10:45 p.m.

The first, with 66% of yes votes, would give almost $24.5 million to senior centers; the second, with 62% yes votes, would give close to $19.3 million to libraries; and the third, with 61% yes votes, would give nearly $216 million to higher education institutions, tribal colleges and specialized school projects.