By Robert Nott and Milan Simonich
The New Mexican
A last-minute fix to the declining lottery scholarship fund — which provides free tuition to all eligible students in New Mexico — provided plenty of drama on the last day of the legislative session.
The plan calls for using alcohol excise tax money, as well as a general fund appropriation, for two years to shore up the scholarship, which has relied on revenue from lottery ticket sales to provide tuition for close to 14,000 students in recent years. Lottery proceeds have plateaued near $40 million per year, while demand for the scholarship is somewhere around $65 million.
Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, on Thursday successfully amended a bill proposed by Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, by making an impassioned “head versus heart” speech to the House floor. Harper asked House members to support his version, saying it was a better solution than the bill crafted by Sanchez, the Senate majority leader.
Sanchez’s measure would have favored first- and second-year college students for scholarship money, with 100 percent tuition covered for them. Whatever was left over would then be allocated to juniors and seniors. Harper’s amended version got rid of that distinction so all students would get the same percent of their tuition covered, based on what is in the fund. In other words, if the fund has 90 percent capacity, all students get 90 percent tuition.
Harper pleaded with the House members to not be cowed by Sanchez, who has the power to bottle up other legislators’ bills. “I implore you to send a message to the majority leader,” Harper said.
Harper’s efforts paid off, as the House approved his amendments to Sanchez’s bill on a 41-25 vote. About a half-dozen House members then lined up to debate Harper’s bill with about an hour left in the session.
With the clock ticking, Sanchez sent word that they should end the discussion, approve the amended bill and rush it to the Senate so he could call it for the decisive vote.
House Speaker Kenny Martinez, D-Grants, said the ensuing action was “literally a foot race to get it [the bill] there.”
Sanchez held true to his word and voted to approve Harper’s amended bill, though he said he did not care for parts of it. The measure received Senate approval with just six minutes left in the session.
“This is not about egos. This is about doing what helps the kids of New Mexico,” Sanchez said afterward.
Harper said he did not regret taking a combative stance with Sanchez. “I may never get another bill out of the Senate, but this was that important to me,” he said.
Sanchez offered a sharp response, saying Harper had not shown independence in most legislative matters. “He should have enough courage to stand up when the governor tells him to do something,” Sanchez said.
Student lobbyists from several state universities praised the deal.
Jeremy Witte, director of governmental affairs for New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, said the bill does not ensure long-term sustainability for the fund but provides breathing room. “It gives us two years” and offers a sense of relief to students relying on the fund, he said.
But he and other students expressed disappointment that the bill also mandates that eligible students earn 15 course credits per semester starting next fall. Under current rules, students only need 12 credits.
The Legislature also approved more than $11.5 million from the state’s general fund to cover the scholarship through this semester.
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or email@example.com.