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Changes to lottery scholarship fund win House approval

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Parking signs greet visitors at the New Mexico Lottery headquarters in Albuquerque last year. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

SANTA FE – The state House on Saturday narrowly approved a proposal aimed at pumping more money into the lottery fund that provides scholarships to New Mexico college students.

But opponents of the legislation said it would have the opposite effect because it would remove a requirement that 30 percent of the revenue generated by the lottery go into a scholarship fund.

House Bill 147 now heads to the Senate, where a similar measure passed last year.

This year’s proposal, however, was heavily amended during a 90-minute debate on the House floor.

Skeptics of the bill won approval for a variety of changes – over the objection of Rep. Jim Smith, R-Tijeras, sponsor of the legislation.

The changes would guarantee that at least $40 million of lottery revenue would go to the scholarship fund each year, or $2 million more than Smith had proposed.

Another amendment would cap the amount the lottery can spend on operating expenses at 15 percent of total revenue.

But Smith asked his colleagues to support the final version of the bill, even with the amendments he’d opposed. Removing the requirement that 30 percent of the money go to scholarships, he argued, would give the lottery more flexibility to boost prizes – a move that would, in turn, motivate more people to play.

The net effect, Smith said, is that more money, not less, would go to scholarships.

“We’re trying to raise revenues,” he said.

The House approved the measure 37-30. The vote didn’t fall along partisan lines.

Democrats voted 20-15 for the bill. Among Republicans, the vote was 17 for and 15 against.

And two of Smith’s fellow GOP representatives led efforts to amend or oppose the bill.

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, won approval for the amendment capping the lottery’s operating costs.

“I’m not comfortable with the idea of kind of giving a blank check to the lottery” for operating expenses, Harper said.

And Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, criticized the concept of trying to attract more players. The lottery, he said, preys on the poor by motivating them to spend money playing a game they have little chance of winning.

Democratic Rep. Matthew McQueen of Galisteo won approval for the amendment boosting the minimum going to the scholarship fund to $40 million.

“We want to make sure we’re getting the money our kids deserve,” he said.

Supporters of the legislation, meanwhile, were fairly quiet during the debate, though they ultimately made up the majority.

Passage of the legislation comes as the lottery-backed scholarship fund struggles to keep up with rising tuition costs. About 26,000 New Mexico college students get the scholarship annually, but its value has diminished to cover an average of 60 percent of their tuition – down from 90 percent last year.

In other action:

• On a vote that cut against traditional party positions, Democratic members of a House committee voted to table a Republican-backed bill that would increase minimum teacher pay.

The legislation divided the state’s two largest teachers unions, and critics argued it represented an unfunded mandate that could lead to disillusionment among veteran educators.

• The state House rejected – at least for now – a proposal that would have required New Mexico drivers to affix license plates to the front and back of their vehicles, not just the back.

A motion to pass House Bill 158 failed on a 27-38 vote. But the House, on a voice vote, later agreed to reconsider and place the bill on the calendar, meaning it can be taken up again at some point.

Supporters argued it would help law enforcement officers and could lead to a decrease in auto theft rates.

Opponents said they heard repeatedly from constituents who said they like the current system, especially the ability to put decorative plates on the front.

Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this article.