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Lottery changes must put students first

As leaders of the UNM College Democrats and Republicans, we disagree about many things, but we both feel strongly about the importance of protecting the lottery scholarship program. For this reason, we urge the Legislature and governor to oppose any legislation that fails to put the interests of students first and maximize the amount of lottery revenues going to scholarships.

Every year for the past decade, students have received more money from the lottery scholarship program than they did in any year before 2008.

This is because, in 2007, the Legislature and governor passed a law guaranteeing that at least 30 percent of lottery revenues must go to the scholarship fund. This law has increased the dollars going to scholarships by about $9 million a year, according to research by the independent think tank Think New Mexico.

Most of those additional dollars came at the expense of the lottery’s outside vendors, multinational gaming corporations that contract with the lottery. Because their contracts were reduced to send more money to scholarships, these companies have hired lobbyists to try to repeal the 30 percent guarantee.

Last year, UNM students worked with Think New Mexico and our allies in the Legislature to transform the lottery vendors’ bill into one that put students first. Legislators added three amendments to the bill which made sure that students would receive at least $40 million a year – the lottery has delivered an average of $42 million a year to scholarships over the past decade; transferred unclaimed prize money – $2-3 million a year – to scholarships rather than returning it to the prize fund; and capped the lottery’s operating expenses at no more than 15 percent. The bill also had a sunset clause so that the 30 percent guarantee would come back automatically if the lottery ever failed to deliver at least $40 million to scholarships.

This year, Senate Bill 283 was introduced to repeal the 30 percent guarantee. We are glad that the bill phases in a cap on the lottery’s operating expenses, and grateful that the Senate Education Committee amended the bill to make sure that the scholarship fund will receive at least $40 million in lottery revenues next year, $40.5 million the year after and $41 million every year after that. If the lottery ever fails to make these minimum payments to the scholarship fund, the 30 percent guarantee will automatically return.

However, while this bill includes important protections for students, we are very troubled that the lottery is trying to kill Senate Bill 80, which would transfer unclaimed prizes to the scholarship fund.

Twenty-nine states send unclaimed prizes to the lottery’s beneficiaries, e.g., scholarships, while only 12 put the money back into the prize fund as New Mexico does. As Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, explained when he presented Senate Bill 80, many people who do not claim their lottery prizes assume that the money will go to students.

Lottery managers argue that they need the unclaimed prize money because delivering 30 percent of revenues to students constrains their cash flow. But SB 283 repeals the 30 percent guarantee, and we urge legislators to amend it to include a transfer of unclaimed prizes to the scholarship fund, just like the bill that passed the House last year.

We hope legislators and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will listen to the voices of students, just as lawmakers did last year, and reject any changes to the lottery that fail to put the interests of students first.

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