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Lottery shouldn’t fund scholarships

Under existing law all of the net proceeds of the New Mexico lottery are devoted to providing tuition scholarships to New Mexico public post-secondary institutions for graduates of New Mexico high schools. These scholarships are available to all graduates without regard to need or academic achievement.

Historically, the net proceeds have been sufficient to fund the scholarships completely. Recently the proceeds have been insufficient for that purpose, and the Legislature has supplemented them with other tax revenues. (Last week it was announced)that lottery proceeds will be sufficient to provide only partial scholarships, amounting to less than the full cost of tuition.

Providing free or low-cost college educations is a valuable public function. But there are also other worthwhile public demands for funds, some in higher education, some in the public schools, and some elsewhere such as child welfare, law enforcement, the justice system and many others.

All of these demands for public funding should be weighed against each other. Neither the scholarship program nor any other should be limited to a single source of funds nor have a preferential claim to a particular source. Lottery proceeds, like tax receipts, are merely public funds available to satisfy various public needs.

Some people will doubtless argue that, when weighed against other demands, scholarships deserve to be fully funded. Others may contend tuition scholarships are less deserving of support than some of the other programs which need funding. Some may rate highly a scholarship program but only if it is need-based or merit-based, or if it funds specific courses of study.

However, all should agree that the relative merits of the various claims on public funds, including scholarships, do not vary in response to the popularity of the lottery at any given time. There is no relationship between lottery purchasers and higher education scholarships that makes it logical for the one to fund the other.

Perhaps it is convenient for the Legislature to avoid evaluating the scholarship program against other public programs. But evaluating competing needs for public funds is one of the most important duties of the Legislature. It should not be shirked nor delegated to the lottery ticket market.

Tying the scholarship program to lottery proceeds results in the scholarship program either receiving more funding or receiving less funding than it would receive if evaluated on its merits against other claims for public funds. Neither is a desirable result.

Dick Minzner is a Democratic former member of the New Mexico House of Representatives. He also was a Cabinet secretary for the Department of Taxation and Revenue.