State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn Jr. wants to start a new permanent fund to finance early childhood education programs with money earned by leasing mineral rights from public land now owned by the federal government. But it could take some time to get the plan off the ground. The state Legislature would have to pass Dunn’s proposal and then Congress would have to approve the transfer of the rights.
One of Dunn’s predecessors doubts the measure would ever pass Congress, while another former land commissioner called the proposal a “crackpot idea” and just another attempt in an ongoing effort to take over federal lands.
Dunn came up with a draft bill earlier this week.
“Commissioner Dunn recognizes the urgent need for early childhood funding. He is passionate about his fiduciary responsibility to generate revenue for the benefit of New Mexico’s public school children,” said Emily Strickler, spokeswoman for the Land Office on Friday.
For years child-welfare advocates and some state legislators have argued that the Legislature should pass a law to pull money from the state’s $14.6 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund for both early childhood education programs and K-12 funding.
Various national studies including the The Kids Count report, compiled by the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, list New Mexico as being at or near the bottom when it comes to the educational well-being of its children. Early childhood education proponents argue that children benefit long-term from pre-Kindergarten educational programming.
Strickler said based on State Land Office data, the 5.3 million to 6.5 million Bureau of Land Management acres under consideration could generate anywhere from $171 million to $210 million in annual royalties to a new Early Childhood Education Land Grant Permanent Fund.
But a former Democratic land commissioner Jim Baca said the plan is “another ruse to get public resources out of public hands, all designed to help the fossil fuel industry. … It’s just throwing mud on the concept of private lands. I don’t know where they come up with these crackpot ideas.”
Baca, who was land commissioner through much of the early 1980s and early ’90s, raised the specter of oil and gas companies getting the right to drill on private land in urban areas.
Ben Shelton, political director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, said that under existing law, people with mineral rights have “implied easement” to the land. Under New Mexico’s Surface Owner’s Protection Act, passed in 2007, mineral rights owners must give the surface owner five days written notice prior to surveying and staking and 30 days written notice for oil and gas operations. The operator must also provide a proposed surface use and compensation agreement to the surface owner.
Shelton said Dunn’s bill is “a new spin on an old idea — the same standard Koch brothers’ federal land seizure that has swept the West in recent years. This time, it’s masquerading as an attempt to benefit New Mexico’s children.”
Asked about environmentalists’ concerns, Strickler said they “seem to be more concerned about climate issues and keeping money in the hands of the federal government than they are about improving the lives of New Mexico’s children.”
Another former land commissioner, Patrick Lyons, a Republican who is now a member of the Public Regulation Commission, said Friday he likes Dunn’s proposal. “I think it would be fantastic,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s going to happen.” He said he doesn’t think Congress will turn those mineral rights over to New Mexico.
Strickler said that will be a challenge since “the congressional delegation must take action to transfer these unleased federal subsurface mineral acreage between private land to the state.”