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Scholarship advocate appointed to lottery board

Othiamba Umi

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has appointed five people to the board that oversees the state lottery, including an official with a nonpartisan think tank that has advocated for changes in New Mexico’s lottery-funded scholarship program.

The appointment of Othiamba Umi, field director at Think New Mexico, was announced Monday. A native New Mexican, Umi received degrees from the University of New Mexico and worked as an attorney in the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office before joining Think New Mexico in 2014.

Others appointed to the New Mexico Lottery Authority are Leo Romero, former dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law; Key Investigations owner David Keylon; accountant Reta Jones; and Nina Thayer, who is retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Umi is among those at the think tank who have been fighting efforts in recent years to roll back the percentage of lottery revenues that are funneled to the scholarship program. Currently, at least 30% of revenues go toward the scholarship fund.

Think New Mexico Executive Director Fred Nathan praised the appointments, saying the new board members can help “refocus the lottery on its purpose of maximizing dollars for scholarships, rather than maximizing dollars for the CEO and the politically connected multinational gaming corporations that contract with the lottery.”

Lottery officials and others have argued that eliminating the guarantee would allow for more money to be spent on prizes and promotion, which could result in more money flowing into the scholarship fund.

According to Think New Mexico, the 30% guarantee has resulted in an average of about $9 million more going to scholarships each year.

“As a past recipient of the lottery scholarship, I appreciate the importance of this funding for students and I am honored to have a chance to make sure they have a strong voice on the lottery authority,” Umi said in a statement.

New Mexico has been struggling for years to address the cost of higher education. It took a leap forward in the 1990s with the creation of the lottery scholarship, which for nearly two decades covered 100% of tuition at state institutions, erasing most of the costs eligible students had to pay.

State lawmakers in recent years were forced to lower the amount the scholarship covered and tighten eligibility requirements as demand for financial aid and increases in tuition outpaced revenue generated by lottery ticket sales.

From 1996 to 2018, $740 million in lottery proceeds and other state funding was funneled to the program, benefiting nearly 117,000 students. Legislative analysts report that 56% of lottery scholarship recipients graduated.

Lujan Grisham earlier this year proposed a new scholarship program to bridge the gap between federal aid and the state lottery-funded scholarships so more people can afford college. The Legislature, which begins its 30-day budget session in January, would have to approve the use of general fund dollars to cover the new scholarships.

Although New Mexico is enjoying a surplus because of an oil production boom, some economists have cautioned that state spending on education and other government programs is increasingly vulnerable to possible downturns in the oil and gas sectors.