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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Scholarship bill still unsigned

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By Sergio Jiménez / New Mexico Daily Lobo

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez watches the crowd during an awards ceremony at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park in Albuquerque last summer. Martinez’s deadline to sign bills from this year’s state legislative session approaches today and Senate Bill 347, a bill that would temporarily save the Legislative Lottery Scholarship, still remains unsigned.

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The future of a bill that would temporarily save the Legislative Lottery Scholarship might come down to the wire again.

As Gov. Susana Martinez’s deadline to sign bills from this year’s state legislative session approaches today, Senate Bill 347 still remains unsigned. And because of an error in the drafting of the bill, she will have to omit four words from the bill to ensure that freshmen would have access to the scholarship.

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Albuquerque, said that through an amendment that he passed in the last minutes of the legislative session, the bill read that the scholarship would only be available starting on a student’s sophomore year in college. He said the Legislature’s drafting committee defined the term “program semester” wrongly, and that no legislator spotted the mistake before the bill’s passage.

“It turns out that program semester has a different definition than just a regular semester,” he said. “Program semesters are defined as semester two through eight. So, the second program semester really is semester three, which is the first sophomore semester.”

But Harper said that the error was purely unintentional. He said that when he found out about the error after the session, he immediately called the New Mexico Higher Education Department and the Governor’s Office to rectify it.

“That was not my intention at all,” he said. “That was not the intention of the Legislature. When I found out about that, I was heartbroken. What we meant was for to start just in the second regular semester like it always had. This was really a drafting error.”

Because SB 347 is an appropriation bill, the governor can perform a line item veto to strike down particular parts of the bill, Harper said. He said all the governor needs to do at this point is strike down the word “program” in four sections of the bill.

Harper said the error occurred because of the pressure legislators received regarding the scholarship’s solvency issue in a short 30-day legislative session. He said that consequently, legislators did not have enough time to consult bills thoroughly.

The high number of other bills addressing the issue also made the process more confusing for them, he said.

Still, Harper said that poor wording can be a problem in any legislative session.

“This happens more often than what I’d like to say,” he said. “We try really hard to carefully read all the legislation that we see. We have staff that performs analyses for us. But sometimes, especially towards the end, there’s just so much going on that little things like this could slip through the cracks.”

Harper said that despite regular correspondence with the governor’s office, he does not know when the governor will sign SB 347 yet.

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 of 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. But through Harper’s amendment, 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.

Some students said they are frustrated that the governor is putting off the signing of the bill to the last minute, just as how it passed the Legislature three minutes before this year’s legislative session ended.

Viri Anaya, a junior studying sociology, said she hopes that the governor will tackle the bill as soon as possible.

“I’m kind of disappointed,” she said. “The governor knows how important the lottery scholarship is for New Mexico and the positive impact that it had for the students. I really hope she signs it.”

Michael Hixon, a sophomore studying biochemistry, said he agrees that the governor should sign the bill immediately. He said he is disappointed about the careless error in SB 347.

“It serves a huge purpose for sending people into college in New Mexico,” he said. “That’s pretty bad.”

Harper said that to prevent similar errors from happening in the future, the Legislature’s staff has undergone further training since the discovery of the mistake. He said legislators should also have more time to look at critical bills such as SB 347.

An extra set of eyes wouldn’t hurt either, Harper said.

“We have at least three different agencies looking over every bill,” he said. “We have analysts. The Democratic Party has analysts. The Republican Party has analysts. We have committee analysts.”

Harper said he is optimistic that the governor would solve the bill’s wording issue and will pass it by the end of today.

“I don’t think any of us legislators or the governor was wanting for this to impact students,” he said. “So, we were very anxious to work together and find a solution that would benefit everyone. We believe the amended bill is a great solution to the lottery.”