By Deborah Baker | Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – There will be another proposal in the mix when legislators resume their perennial discussion of whether and how to provide more state money for early childhood education.

State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn wants to create a new permanent fund, fed by revenue from leasing subsurface mineral acreage that the federal government would transfer to New Mexico.

He calls it “a unique opportunity to ‘grow the pie’ for education funding.”

Under his plan, millions of unleased acres of federally owned minerals that are beneath private land would be shifted to the state. The State Land Office would lease them out – for oil and gas drilling, for example – with the revenue flowing into an Early Childhood Education Land Grant Permanent Fund.

Congress would have to approve the transfer of the minerals, and the state Legislature would have to pass a bill creating the fund.

Advocates have been pushing for years for the Legislature to endorse a constitutional change to increase the annual withdrawals from the state’s $14.6 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund for 10 years and funnel the extra money to early childhood programs.

Dunn’s proposal is somewhat akin to one promoted two years ago by his predecessor, Land Commissioner Ray Powell.

Powell had his eye on an estimated 1 million acres of federal lands that the Bureau of Land Management had designated for disposal; he wanted the feds to give the state a chunk of that surface acreage, so it could be leased for a variety of uses. The revenue would have fed a new early childhood education fund.

The Legislature approved $250,000 for Powell’s office to study and identify the best BLM land for the project, but Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed it.

A spokeswoman for Dunn said that, because the Powell proposal involved surface acreage, it could have hindered public access to the land, whereas Dunn’s plan would not affect public access.

Spokeswoman Emily Strickler also said the state would share royalties and other revenue from leases with the federal government for a 10-year period.

Allen Sanchez, the lobbyist for the state’s Roman Catholic bishops, said advocates of the constitutional change are “very interested” in Dunn’s proposal, although it would be a long-term solution that wouldn’t provide immediate funding. Dunn, meanwhile, has agreed to take a closer look at the proposed constitutional change that will be introduced again in 2017, his spokeswoman said.

But among the hurdles for Dunn’s plan is the likely opposition of conservation and wildlife groups that see the proposal as a new twist on an ongoing effort to seize federal lands.

Leasing the lands to oil and gas interests “will ultimately fence off and despoil those lands for future generations” while worsening the effects of climate change, said Ben Shelton of Conservation Voters New Mexico.

John Crenshaw, president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, said the plan would “set a West-wide precedent and negatively impact the national budget.”