WITH THREE MINUTES TO SPARE: Racing against a noon deadline, the New Mexico Legislature passed a last-minute bill aimed at fixing the financially ailing New Mexico Lottery Scholarship program on Thursday.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE – Just another final day of the New Mexico legislative session.
Once again, Roundhouse legislators passed a crucial bill moments before the noon deadline struck.
Last year, it was a complex measure that included corporate tax reductions and film industry incentives. This time, it was a bill that intends to shore up the state’s lottery scholarship program.
“It was a foot race,” said Speaker of the House W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants.
Under the provisions of Senate Bill 347, scholarship rewards will be uniform for all eligible students (the original legislation would have given freshmen and sophomores 100 percent funding but would have given juniors and seniors less).
The bill also will be funded through excise taxes on liquor but the bill was amended so that the tax will come to an end after two years.
So if you’re a New Mexico college student who’s eligible — or the parent of one — the bill that passed Thursday means:
*scholarship money will be reduced from eight semesters to seven
*rewards require that students enroll for at least 12 credit hours at community colleges and 15 hours at four-year and research institutions
*keeps the minimum grade point average at 2.5, and
*and institutes a “legacy” provision so that incoming students this year still receive rewards that last for eight semesters
Backers of the bill say it represents a long-term fix for the program, which has been running at a deficit in recent years because revenue coming into the lottery — from people buying Lotto and Scratchers tickets, for example — has been flat while tuition costs at New Mexico’s schools of higher education have increased.
Gov. Susana Martinez indicated in a brief post-session news conference that she will sign the bill.
“It’s a solution that protects the core of the fund and is fair to all students,” Martinez said.
Now for the drama and political intrigue:
It appeared as if the final day of the 30-day session would be a rather uneventful one.
But at 10:30 a.m. — just 90 minutes from the noon deadline — SB347 was brought to the floor. A relative novice, second-year Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, introduced an amendment to the bill, which was originally sponsored by one of the most powerful members of the Roundhouse, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, who has taken a keen interest in the lottery scholarship since it was instituted in 1995.
Harper urged Democrats and Republicans to vote for the amended bill, even if it meant potentially going against Sanchez.
“I’ll say that by standing up here I’ll probably never get another vote out of the Senate,” Harper said. Harper later mentioned Sanchez by name and concluded by saying, “I implore you to vote for what is right. Or we can all worry about our individual bills because we’re worried we’re going to tick off the Senate floor leader. Put politics aside.”
A motion to table Harper’s amendment failed on 36-29 vote, with five Democrats joining Republicans. The amendment was then adopted on a 41-25 vote (with nine Democrats joining Republicans) and then the entire bill was passed, 66-1 with only Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, voting against. It was just before 11 a.m.
The bill moved over to the Senate, where Sanchez had promised a hearing on the bill and at 11:52 a.m. Sanchez brought it up. Despite his concerns with the legislation, Sanchez requested the Senate concur with the amended version of the bill.
Sens. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, and John Sapien, D-Corrales, said they would vote in favor of the bill but complained about Harper bringing up Sanchez’s name on the House floor.
“We shouldn’t make decisions because we want to punish someone or because we want to send a message,” Candelaria said.
“We have to be very careful about making this personal,” Sapien said.
The voice vote was taken and it passed unanimously. It was 11:57 a.m. and a lottery scholarship fix was done.
Talking to reporters afterwards, Sanchez said he was irritated by Harper’s remarks.
“If you want to send a message, representative, send it up to the governor,” said Sanchez, who has openly feuded with Gov. Martinez. “You don’t have to send a message to me. I’m pretty fair about everything I do on our floor. And I’ll continue to be fair regardless of what he says or not.”
House Minority Leader Rep. Don Bratton, R-Hobbs, said Harper mentioning Sanchez by name on the floor was “maybe a freshman mistake” but “I think what was said was said in a respectful manner.”
“I wanted to be completely honest,” Harper said. “I knew that most of my colleagues completely agreed with the amendment. They were scared for retribution. And, honestly, we’re here for our constituents and do what’s right for the state and I know if I never get another bill out of the Senate, I know I’ve done the right thing.”
Here’s New Mexico Watchdog video with the principals involved in the last-minute deal:
Contact Rob Nikolewski at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski