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Lottery college aid fixes proposed

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SANTA FE – A flood of plans to shore up New Mexico’s cash-strapped lottery scholarship program has hit the state Capitol, leaving lawmakers with plenty of options but little clarity with just two weeks left in this year’s 30-day legislative session.

Thirteen bills relating to the popular program have been introduced at the Legislature, with proposals ranging from tougher academic criteria for scholarship recipients to increasing the state’s motor vehicle excise tax to bring in more money for scholarships.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, who is sponsoring the proposed tax hike, told reporters this week that he opposes enacting tougher restrictions on students, such as higher grade point average requirements.

“We’re not giving up,” Sanchez said.

In another approach, three Rio Rancho lawmakers have proposed a bill that would sever the lottery scholarships from tuition levels and set the stipends at a flat amount. Scholarship sizes would be determined annually, based on how many students would be receiving stipends and the amount of money in the fund.

“We want all New Mexico students to still have access to the scholarship fund,” said Rep. Jason Harper, a Rio Rancho Republican. “We want it to be fair and we want more students to graduate from college.”

The scholarship program, which began in 1996, has inched toward insolvency. This year, the scholarship fund is expected to pay out about $67 million while taking in roughly $40 million from lottery ticket sales.

Currently, any New Mexican who graduates from an in-state high school with a minimum 2.5 GPA is eligible to receive the scholarship, which covers full tuition – but not fees – for eight consecutive semesters. Students who receive a New Mexico GED are also eligible.

Higher Education Secretary José Garcia, a gubernatorial appointee, has said scholarship awards will have to be trimmed for an estimated 18,500 students during this spring semester if the Legislature does not approve a solvency fix.

An agency spokesman said Thursday that the department is still reviewing the various bills. HED has not endorsed a proposed solvency fix but sent 32 solvency scenarios to top-ranking lawmakers last month.

“This is a critical issue, and we’re pleased that lawmakers are putting the issue front and center during this legislative session,” HED spokesman Chris Sanchez said.

The plan for dealing with the bills, at least in the Senate, is to have the Education Committee consider the various proposals and attempt to mold them into a single compromise measure that could then move forward, said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming.

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