SANTA FE — A group that wants to tap a fresh pipeline of state money for early childhood education is using radio ads to pressure two state senators.
The New Mexico Center for Civic Policy on Monday began running spots targeting Democrats John Arthur Smith of Deming and John Sapien of Corrales.
Smith for months has been criticized by the group because he blocked a vote in his Senate Finance Committee on a bill that could have sent the education proposal to the statewide ballot.
Smith said he wanted to protect fellow committee members from criticism, so he simply stopped the bill himself last March. He said he agreed that early childhood education was important, but considered it financially irresponsible to fund it from the state's $12 billion land-grant endowment.
He said in an interview that he was not bothered by a new round of ads criticizing him.
"I've got a pretty thick hide," Smith said. "They must have a lot of money to be running all these ads."
The radio ads mark the first time that the group has focused publicly on Sapien, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. The Center for Civic Policy also sent a mass mailing to his district, and it plans to put up a billboard as well.
"Recipients are being encouraged to contact Senator Sapien to help persuade him to lean on his colleagues in the New Mexico Senate to allow a long-delayed hearing in the Senate Finance Committee in January," the center said in a statement.
Sapien said no one from the Center on Civic Policy had ever attempted to have a dialogue with him on the early childhood initiative.
"I'm really dumbfounded that they would take out after me in a negative-spirited campaign," Sapien said in an interview.
He said he could not take a position on the initiative until many questions were answered, including the intricacies of how the program actually would work, who would run it and how accountability would be built in.
Stephanie Maez, CEO of the Center for Civic Policy, said the early childhood program could break cycles of poverty and low achievement.
"New Mexicans are desperate to get our state off the floor of national child well-being rankings," she said. "There's never been a more critical time for education leaders like Senator Sapien to help release the stranglehold on game-changing strategies like this that will give New Mexico's kids a fighting chance."
Javier Benavidez, a spokesman for the Center for Civic Policy, said the organization is a nonprofit that operates largely on grants. The Kellogg Foundation is among its contributors.
The center for a fourth year in 2014 will push a bill calling for $110 million a year for 10 years to be spent on education programs for infants and kids up to 5 years old.
Like Smith, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez opposes using money from the state endowment to pay for the program. She has said it could hurt the state financially over the long term.
Miguel Gomez, of St. Joseph Community Health, is a leading advocate of using a portion of the endowment for early childhood education. He said the endowment would still double in size, though more slowly, if 1 percent of it was devoted to early childhood development.
In turn, he said, New Mexico would have more high school and college graduates and fewer kids ending up in jail and low-income jobs.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe Bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at 505-820-6898 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @MilansNMreport on Twitter. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.