Legislators say it is knocking school funding out of whack
The bill is aimed at Dona Ana and Sierra counties, both of which approved a special tax to help finance Spaceport America, the $209 million enterprise that is supposed to create a commercial space industry in New Mexico,
Voters in Dona Ana County authorized a quarter-cent tax by just 204 votes of 17,000 cast, said state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces.
This razor-thin margin of victory was achieved with a promise that a share of the tax money would go to public schools, Cervantes said.
Now Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, right, D-Gallup, is challenging the legality of this arrangement.
With one or two counties using a sales tax to help finance school operations, the state’s carefully crafted system of equal funding for public education in its 89 districts is being thrown out of balance, Lundstrom said.
“This has opened a can of worms. Can you imagine if Albuquerque decided to pass a tax for school operations? The whole state see an inequity in school funding,” Lundstrom said.
Dona Ana voters in 2007 approved the special tax for the Spaceport. Sierra County voters did the same in 2008.
Cervantes, right, said then-governor Bill Richardson and his staff campaigned hard for the tax increase in the southern counties. The Spaceport was one of the signature projects of Democrat Richardson’s eight years as the state’s chief executive.
Sen. Mary Kap Papen, D-Las Cruces, said reluctant voters in Dona Ana County were won over with a sweetener to the tax increase. They were promised that 25 percent of the revenues collected from the special tax would go to school operations, Papen said.
She said this campaign pitch was critical in convincing people in impoverished border communities to support the tax increase.
“They were 40 miles from the planned Spaceport and would not get any direct benefits from it. But if their schools got some of the tax money, there was an incentive for them to vote for it,” Papen said in an interview.
Lundstrom said only recently did her Finance Authority Oversight Committee take notice of the tax arrangement in the south. By funding school operations with county tax revenues, an opening is created for wealthy communities to pour extra money into their schools.
Low-income communities or towns without much of a tax base could never match this level of funding, Lundstrom said. The result would be a state with a mix of wealthy public schools and others that were underfunded, she said.
Lundstrom’s bill to stop the southern counties from funding school operations sailed through the committee. Only Papen and Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, voted against it.
Papen said she opposed changing the system because Dona Ana County voters had been promised that a tax for the Spaceport would also help fund their schools.
Cervantes was among a dozen legislators voting to endorse the bill. He said the question of equitable school funding was an important one that deserved consideration by the Legislature.
With the endorsement, the committee is asking Gov. Susana Martinez to allow the bill to be heard in the 30-day legislative session that starts in January. Lundstrom said the bill might qualify to be heard anyway because it involves the state budget.
So far, the special tax in Dona Ana County has generated about $32 million, Cervantes said. Of that, $8 million has gone to schools in the Las Cruces, Gadsden and Hatch districts.
Papen was the legislator most worried about a cutoff of funding. She said companies had funded construction of schools and sports stadiums for certain districts. She questioned why the Dona Ana County system was different.
Lundstrom said there was a big difference between building a stadium — a one-time construction project done as a gift to a community — and ongoing allocations of tax money to pay for teacher salaries and academic programs.