IS THERE ENOUGH TIME?: At least nine different bills have been introduced to tackle the financial shortfall in the New Mexico Lottery scholarship program …. but just 10 days are left in the current 30-day session.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE – Fixing the state’s lottery scholarship program is one big problem that has plenty of potential solutions floating through the Roundhouse.
But with just 10 days left in the 30-day legislative session, none of the bills offering potential solutions have reached the floor of the state House of Representatives or the Senate and there’s concern that time will run out before the Legislature addresses how to get the program financially solvent.
“Honestly, I don’t think so,” said Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, told New Mexico Watchdog on Monday when asked if he thinks a bill will pass before the session ends at noon Feb. 20.
Rep. Jason Harper, R-Albuquerque, who has introduced his own bill aiming to address the program’s shortfall is more optimistic.
“In my experience if a bill has legs it can get through even it’s in the last 10 seconds of the session,” Harper said. “We all realize we have to fix this.”
“I’m not panicking yet,” said Speaker of the House W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants.
The lottery scholarship program’s problem is relatively simple: More money is going out than is coming in.
The revenue generated from people across the state buying lottery tickets has been flat but tuition rates have gone up to such an extent that the fund is now running at a deficit.
If a solution is not reached by the end of this legislative session, it will be up to the Secretary of the New Mexico Higher Education Department, José Z. Garcia to come up with a decision on what to do for the upcoming school year.
Whatever happens, it will a major effect on students and parents across the state.
For example, 8,000 students attend the University of New Mexico on lottery scholarships, which are available to incoming freshmen who maintain a minimum grade point average of 2.5 and are New Mexico residents. The scholarships pay for all the tuition at the state’s 25 colleges and universities but does not pay for books, fees or housing.
No less than nine bills have been introduced this session, each with their own solutions to the problem.
Some have suggested raising the grade point average but, appearing before the House Education Committee on Monday, Harper says raising the GPA from 2.5 to 2.75 wouldn’t fix the problem because he says it would only affect 10 percent of the students.
Others have called for “decoupling” the amount of the scholarships to the tuition rates at the various schools, i.e., set one flat figure for all eligible students. Those plans would probably still cover 100 percent of the cost at two-year colleges but would not cover the entire bill for students attending schools like UNM or New Mexico State.
Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, is against increasing GPAs, decoupling the awards to tuition or reducing the amounts at all. In order to make up the financial difference, Sanchez has floated the idea of increasing the gasoline tax by 1 percent, which his staff estimates would generate $30 million a year.
But that’s opposed by fiscal conservatives, who say the lottery scholarship was sold back in 1995 as a plan that would not cost taxpayers a dime.
Harper’s bill reduces the length of the scholarships from eight semesters to seven semesters, decouples scholarships from tuition rates and should the award exceed the tuition charged at a given school, the left over money would revert to the fund.
“I think it solves the problem,” Harper said.
Another possible fix comes from Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Jim Smith, R-Albuquerque, who have introduced House Bill 254, which purports to get the fund on solid financial footing while maintaining the 2.5 GPA and the minimum requirement of 12 semester hours.
But Smith admitted the bill is complex.
“It’s sort of like my daughter, who introduced me to a young man, and I asked her if they were dating,” Smith said, “and she said, ‘It’s complicated.’ ”
HB254 passed through the House Education Committee Monday without a recommendation and now moves on to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
Another issue involves questions about “stacking” scholarships — that is, students using grants and other scholarships in addition to the lottery scholarships.
“I understand you can get Pell grants and stack that on top,” said Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque. “We need to look into that.”
Other complicating factors include the political debate that is sure to flare on the floor, should different bills manage to survive the committee process, or even if they’re heard on the floor in the first place.
In the Senate, for instance, Majority Leader Sanchez determines what bills are taken off the table for floor debate.
“One thing to keep in mind is that unless Sen. Sanchez wants them, they’re dead,” Hall said.
And then there’s a chance that a temporary fix is made.
“We may do a piece-meal proposal, where we could allocate some money to tide us over until next year,” Speaker Martinez said. “It’s magic sometimes, when it comes to the things we absolutely have to get done.”
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski