ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The head of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops believes racism helped killed a proposal to expand early childhood education in the state.

Allen Sanchez, executive director of the group, said he thinks wealthy whites opposed the plan that would have helped the state's poor Hispanic and Native American children by offering expanded preschool options.

"We feel there's an element of racism here," Sanchez said Wednesday at a candlelight vigil outside the New Mexico Statehouse. "If you look at the footage of the hearings around this proposal, the opposition came from people with power and wealth. They don't understand what is going on in our communities with poverty."

A constitutional amendment to increase annual distributions from the $17 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to early childhood education programs would have gone to the voters in November. But the proposal died in the Senate Finance Committee after panel chair, Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith, declined to give it a hearing.

He said he didn't know if wealthy lawmakers opposed the plan or if racism was a factor.

"My reasons are about fiscal concerns," Smith said. "We already give back the federal government millions from Head Start. We need to get our (Public Education Department) and the federal government to fix this."

This was the eighth time anti-poverty advocates were unable to convince lawmakers to endorse a measure to expand early childhood programs despite public pressure and polls showing support.

Javier Benavidez, a campaign manager at the Inclusive Democracy Project, said advocates have to target moderate Senate Democrats who have repeatedly opposed the measure with liberal candidates in 2020 primary elections.

Sanchez said the Senate Democratic leadership could have brought the proposal to the whole Senate floor for a vote. "Them not doing so tells you're their priorities," he said.

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Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP's race and ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras rcontreras