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Tuition-free college plan among bills in limbo

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham delivers her State of the State speech last month. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s scaled-back plan for tuition-free college for certain New Mexicans is among several bills in budgetary limbo as the 30-day legislative session enters its homestretch.

Several influential senators said Sunday the proposed Opportunity Scholarship still stands a good chance of winning approval before the session ends Thursday at noon.

“We’re still working on it,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming. “It’s still in play.”

However, he said the scholarship plan might have to be reduced to fit within a $7 billion-plus spending bill his committee plans to vote on Monday, after various changes are approved.

The fates of several high-profile measures have already been largely decided, as a red flag firearm bill was sent to Lujan Grisham’s desk last week and a marijuana legalization bill was tabled.

But the opportunity scholarship proposal is one of hundreds of bills still in the Roundhouse mix for the session’s final days.

Many of those bills will have a chance at passage only if funding to pay for them is included in a House-approved budget bill that senators have been scrutinizing for more than a week.

About 600 amendments have been proposed to the budget bill, but not all of them are likely to be adopted by the Senate Finance Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said Lujan Grisham has made it clear the scholarship plan is a top priority.

“She really wants it and she’s restructured it,” Wirth told the Journal. “The question just becomes, how does it fit within the budget?”

In its initial form, Lujan Grisham’s plan called for state funds to cover tuition for an estimated 55,000 higher education students – by plugging the gap left by an existing lottery-funded scholarship.

While that’s still the goal, the scholarship program has been revamped after getting a lukewarm reception from some lawmakers.

It would now be phased in over two years, starting with two-year scholarships in the 2020-21 school year for students attending community colleges, trade schools or four-year institutions that offer associate degrees. Recent high school graduates and adults ages 24 and older who head back to school would be among the students eligible for the tuition aid.

For the following year, the scholarship could be expanded – at a higher price tag – to cover tuition costs of qualifying students at four-year universities.

“We feel confident we’re going to be able to find the funding on the Senate side,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Sunday.

She also said the Democratic governor is open to further tweaks to the scholarship plan, but wants it to be adequately funded.

“We’re committed to doing it the right way,” Sackett said.

Unlike under the initial version of the bill, the revamped proposal – using a “middle dollar” approach – calls for opportunity scholarships to be awarded after the state lottery scholarship but before other sources of financial aid, including federal Pell Grants.

That would allow lower-income students to use federal financial aid to cover student fees, textbooks and other expenses.

However, there’s been a dispute over the Opportunity Scholarship’s price tag, as a Higher Education Department analysis estimated it would cost $26 million in the coming budget year. In contrast, a Legislative Finance Committee analysis projected the plan’s full cost to be roughly $62 million per year.

Any scholarship expenses that are not funded would presumably have to be absorbed using general fund dollars.

The two Opportunity Scholarship bills are Senate Bill 323, sponsored by Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, and House Bill 14, sponsored by Rep. Tomás Salazar, D-Las Vegas.

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