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Glitch puts lottery scholarships in a bind

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SANTA FE – A technical glitch in the lottery scholarship bill that New Mexico lawmakers passed in the final hours of their 30-day legislative session could lead to an unintended tuition gap for students, but Gov. Susana Martinez is vowing to fix the problem.

A spokesman for the Republican governor said Tuesday that Martinez plans to use her line-item veto authority to strike out what the bill’s architect described as a drafting error.

“The governor is in agreement that it is a minor technical issue that can be fixed through a line-item veto,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said. “This is something that should never affect students, and it won’t.”

What’s the problem?

As currently written, the bill calls for future students who meet the lottery scholarship program’s qualifying criteria – including a minimum 2.5 GPA – to begin receiving the scholarship during their second “program” semester.

However, that wording would bar scholarship recipients from getting the award until their sophomore year. The bill was intended to allow recipients to get the scholarship during their second semester in college, as is currently done, and not their third semester, said Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, who proposed it.

Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislative Council Service, which helps draft bills, said his agency has taken responsibility for the glitch and apologized to Harper.

“It was a drafting error,” Burciaga said.

He said he did not feel comfortable making changes to the bill after lawmakers approved it, but said he has analyzed the legislation and believes a veto of the word “program” could avoid the unintended consequence of a tuition gap.

However, Senate Democratic floor leader Michael Sanchez of Belen said the glitch shows the danger of pushing bills through at the eleventh hour.

“The House floor amendment to the lottery bill is the latest example of why important policy decisions should not be rushed,” Sanchez said in a statement. “There is too much room for error.”

Sanchez was the original sponsor of the lottery legislation, approved Feb. 18 in the Senate. The bill was then changed in the House on Feb. 20, the last day of the session.

As of Tuesday, Martinez had not acted on the bill, which changes lottery scholarship criteria and earmarks state tax dollars to help keep the cash-strapped program afloat.

The deadline to act on the scholarship legislation is next Wednesday.

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