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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Scholarship safe for 2 more years

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By Aaron Sweet / New Mexico Daily Lobo

The New Mexico Legislature on Thursday passes Senate Bill 347, which gives a resolution to the Legislative Lottery Scholarship solvency issue.

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Despite the last-minute passage of a solution for its solvency issue, student governments statewide feel confident about the compromise that will allow the Legislative Lottery Scholarship to continue.

As the State Legislature adjourned this year’s session Thursday, lawmakers rushed to approve Senate Bill 347. They were able to pass the bill two minutes before both chambers declared sine die.
Associated Students of the University of New Mexico President Isaac Romero said he is happy to finally breathe a temporary sigh of relief.

“I’m glad with the state that it’s in,” he said. “I believe (Rep. Harper’s) amendment really helped to make it something that students could support… It does something to make sure that students are affected equally, and in a positive way.”

Sponsored by Senate Floor Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, SB 347 allows the state to allot a one-time appropriation of $11 million from the general fund for the Scholarship for fiscal year 2015. The bill will also allow the Scholarship to use $18.5 million from state liquor excise tax revenues for the following fiscal year.

The bill also increases the credit-hour requirement of the Scholarship from 12 to 15 credit hours for students at four-year institutions. It will not change the Scholarship’s GPA requirement, which sits at 2.5.

Initially, SB 347 aimed to front-load the Scholarship, meaning that in case of insufficient funds, freshmen and sophomores would have still been guaranteed full-tuition amounts, while juniors and seniors would have taken cuts. Through an amendment introduced in the House, if need be, the bill will now pro-rate amounts in all year levels instead of just for upperclassmen.

This could result in all students receiving partial awards.

And Jeremy Witte, the governmental affairs director for New Mexico State University, said his organization fully supports the changes.

“We are in favor of SB 347 as amended,” he said. “We think it’s a terrible way to incentivize students to go to college. We think if you are completing your degree, you need to be awarded more. We certainly don’t think you need to have money taken away from you as you progress through school.”

While Witte said the increase in credit hours was not an ideal part of the bill for the student representatives, he said something had to give in order to approve some form of a fix.

“The amended version still does increase credit hours,” he said. “That’s not something we’re exactly excited about, but it was a compromise. We had to give up something in order to get a bill passed.”

Romero said the bill might also hurt students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

“A lot of their classes come up to 12, 13 or even 14 credit hours, so they’re behind by one credit hour,” he said. “I’m not sure what they’re going to have to do. I suppose they could just take a yoga class, but that would be something annoying because they could use that extra time to study.”

But despite imperfections, SB 347 proved to be the best compromise available, Romero said. He said legislators will need to revisit the issue in the following years.

“I don’t think this is going to be the permanent fix,” he said. “As tuition goes up and as more students become more eligible for the lottery scholarship, that percentage number would become less and less because of the revenues coming in. But I think the additional revenues are good for it.”

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, initiated the amendment to SB 347 the morning of the session’s finale as the bill reached the House floor. The amendment passed the House 41-25.

Harper said he pushed for the amendment because pro-rating scholarship amounts will hurt students who have almost earned their diploma.

“The part of the bill that I didn’t find equitable was that you get 100 percent in semesters one, two, three and four, but juniors and seniors, they would get whatever money was left,” he said. “Juniors and seniors need the help to cross the finish line. I didn’t think it was that it was making two classes of students basically.”

With Harper’s amendment, legislators will be required to reevaluate the amount of money from the liquor excise tax that would be allotted to the Scholarship by fiscal year 2016, he said.

But Sanchez said the amendment inflicts disadvantages on lower-income students. He said that under the original version of his bill, freshmen, sophomores and legacy students would have gotten all of their tuition covered, but now all students will only get a portion of costs covered.

“Basically it helps those young people whose parents have a lot of money, and it hurts those middle-class students and those lower income students because they now may not be able to afford to pay the remainder of the tuition that they’re not going to be able to get,” he said.

The increase in the minimum credit hour requirement from 12 to 15 was intended to help pay full tuition for freshmen, sophomores and legacy students, Sanchez said. He said taking away the 100 percent tuition coverage from those students will make it hard on them.

“(For) those students from middle-income families and those students from lower-income families, that 15 hours is going to be very difficult,” he said. “Now they’re either going to drop out of school or they’re going to have to try to find a job.”

Sanchez said that next year, he will try to readjust the scholarship to try to get 100 percent tuition covered for all students. He said not providing full tuition hurts lower-income young people, and certain legislators were responsible because of their vote in favor of the amendment.

“It was all of the Republicans and five Democrats. Some of them come from some pretty poor districts,” he said. “And for the effect it’s going to have on those students in those districts, they should be ashamed of themselves.”

Harper sponsored House Bill 263, a bill that would have allowed the Higher Education Department to decide on the Scholarship’s per-student amounts yearly based on funds available and the number of eligible students every year. The bill passed the House and was put on the Senate’s agenda for the last day of the session, but wasn’t discussed by senators in time.

Harper said he blames Sanchez for the death of his bill.

“It was on the Senate floor, and Michael Sanchez, as the senate floor leader, decided what bills were on the floor,” Harper said.

“Because he was a key player in the lottery scholarship, he wanted to be the one to fix it… I don’t think it’s a good thing that one person has so much power.”

Still, he said he is content that legislators were able to ultimately reach a consensus. He said he is positive that Gov. Susana Martinez will sign SB 347 into law.

“My wife was on the lottery scholarship, and it was a great blessing to our family,” he said. “The lottery scholarship has blessed the lives of thousands of New Mexicans. With this fix, I believe it will continue to do so.”