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Education head: Lottery scholarship is a state issue

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SANTA FE – The head of New Mexico’s Higher Education Department urged state lawmakers Tuesday to come up with a balanced plan for shoring up the state’s lottery scholarship program, but said his agency will not bring forward its own proposal.

“This is called the legislative lottery scholarship for a reason,” Higher Education Secretary José Garcia told reporters after speaking before the Legislative Finance Committee. “This is a legislative issue.”

In the short term, the Higher Education Department has requested a special appropriation of $11 million to ensure scholarship awards are not cut during the 2014 spring semester. The agency will likely ask for additional emergency funding as well, Garcia said.

If lawmakers do not approve funding and enact other changes, Garcia has warned university and community college presidents that scholarship awards will have to be trimmed. Roughly 18,500 students are expected to receive lottery scholarships during the spring semester.

However, several lawmakers took issue Tuesday with the Higher Education Department’s stance on the long-term solvency of the lottery scholarship, which is expected to be a hot-button issue during the 30-day legislative session that begins Jan. 21.

“You’ve given a band-aid solution for the (spring) semester,” but offered no future solvency plan, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, told agency officials during Tuesday’s hearing at the state Capitol.

Rep. James White, R-Albuquerque, also lamented that lawmakers have not seen a “full proposal” from the agency, though department officials said legislators will be provided with information on possible changes to the scholarship program.

Meanwhile, the LFC’s chairman disclosed details of a legislative staff plan that has not yet been voted on by the committee.

That plan, said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, calls for changes that include:

⋄  Increasing the minimum GPA for scholarship recipients from 2.5 to 2.75.

⋄  Requiring students at four-year universities to take at least 15 credit hours per semester, up from the current 12.

⋄  Making the scholarship a flat amount that is not tied to tuition.

It would exempt rising juniors and seniors, who would still be subject to current scholarship criteria guidelines.

The lottery scholarship, created in 1996, is available to any New Mexican who graduates from an in-state high school with a minimum 2.5 GPA. Students who receive a New Mexico GED are also eligible.

Those who receive the scholarship have 100 percent of their tuition covered for eight consecutive semesters, though other fees are not covered.

The crisis faced by the lottery scholarship is largely due to rising tuition costs and increased use. This year, the lottery program is expected to pay out about $67 million in scholarships while only taking in about $40 million in revenue.

A task force charged with finding ways to prop up the cash-strapped scholarship program could not reach agreement earlier this year about solvency fixes.

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