ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez says remarks by a Catholic advocate who charged that racism helped kill an early childhood education proposal were “extremely disappointing.”

The Republican told reporters on Wednesday that New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops’ executive director Allen Sanchez was wrong to suggest opposition to the measure had to do with racism.

New Mexico’s three Catholic bishops say Sanchez didn’t accuse anyone of racism and only pointed out flaws in the state’s educational system.

But 33 GOP state lawmakers sent Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester a letter Monday and asked him if he agreed with remarks about racism made by Sanchez.

Sanchez told The Associated Press last month that “an element of racism” killed a proposal to expand early childhood education in the state.

“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,” Sanchez said at a candlelight vigil outside the New Mexico Statehouse during the last night of the Legislative session.

In an open letter Tuesday, the bishops wrote that Allen Sanchez, executive director of the group, has a deep love “for the Gospel” and is an advocate for the state’s poor with an extension record.

“We Catholic bishops of New Mexico respectfully request our elected officials keep their focus on the issue at hand: The plight of our children living in extreme poverty,” Wester, Las Cruces Bishop Oscar Cantu and Gallup Bishop James Wall wrote.

A constitutional amendment to increase annual distributions from the $17 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to early childhood education programs passed the New Mexico House but died in a Senate committee. The plan was supported by liberal lawmakers and opposed by conservatives and some moderate Hispanic Senate Democrats.

GOP lawmakers who opposed the measure said Sanchez’s comments were “unfair and deliberately inflammatory” and wanted Wester to weigh in.

“The political debate is divisive enough in this country and this state without unwarranted accusations of racism being thrown about without any evidence,” the lawmakers said.

The bishops, however, did not back down in their push for the early childhood education proposal that they have said would help Hispanic and Native American children get out of poverty.

“Institutional or structural racism is constructed by policies and practices that, intentionally or not, produce the outcomes that place a racial group on an unlevel playing field,” the bishops wrote.