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Student leaders make plan to save lottery scholarships

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Student leaders from institutions of higher learning around the state met Saturday in Albuquerque to forge their final plan to fix the cash-strapped lottery scholarship and send it to the Legislature by next month.

The united proposal will include a call to raise the currently required minimum 2.5 grade point average to 2.75; lower the number of consecutive semesters the scholarship will be available from eight to seven – three semesters for students at two-year colleges; and, perhaps most significantly, to “decouple” any mention of “tuition” from scholarship payments.

It is unclear how much money these moves will save, but, by decoupling, future grants would depend on the amount of revenue the New Mexico Lottery brings in each year. That amount would be divided equally or proportionately among the various schools, depending on the number of scholarship students, among other criteria.

That means that New Mexico high school graduates in the future would no longer be able to count on having all of their tuition covered by the scholarship fund, as has been the case since 1996. A number of key legislators have already come out against raising the minimum GPA.

The student leaders opted to leave in place a requirement that recipients take a minimum of 12 credit units per semester.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, addressed the meeting and advised drafting a bill by the middle of December that could be filed before the next legislative session convenes. Because a legislative working group formed to deal with scholarship’s problems had failed to reach a solution, he said, the students’ efforts have assumed an even greater importance.

When it was first created, the lottery scholarship fund ran a surplus, which was then banked for future years. However, it has grown increasingly insolvent, due to rising tuition rates, increases in student enrollment and largely stagnant lottery ticket sales. This year, for example, the fund is expected to pay out $67 million in scholarships while only taking in about $40 million, a situation that is not sustainable.

State Higher Education Secretary José Garcia has previously said the grants might have to be scaled back, perhaps as soon as 2014, if the Legislature fails to adopt a fix in the next session, which convenes Jan. 17. A wide-open debate is expected.

David Maestas, president of the New Mexico State University student government, told Candelaria that the issue of pending insolvency has been on the table for three years, and frustration with lawmakers in Santa Fe has only grown as they have failed to act.

The senator’s response was: “Be bold and write a bill. … Don’t wait for us. … Force the conversation.” He said he would open a file for the students’ draft bill, which, providing the work is done, could be pre-filed at the Roundhouse as early as Dec. 16.

Student leaders participating in Saturday’s four-hour discussion came from the University of New Mexico (where the meeting was held), New Mexico State University, Luna Community College, Central New Mexico Community College, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Western New Mexico University, Eastern New Mexico University, Santa Fe City College and UNM’s Valencia Campus.

Dan Chadborn, representing UNM’s Valencia County campus, noted that Georgia, the state with the first lottery scholarship, has increased its GPA requirement from 2.5 to 3.0, but neither he nor any of the other 13 students present favored such a big increase.

In addition to drafting proposed legislation, the student leaders agreed to write to Gov. Susanna Martinez about their concerns to try to get her onboard. In the past, she has strongly opposed any tax increase to bolster the scholarship fund. During the last legislative session, however, she signed a bill that would have given the fund a $10 million shot in the arm by transferring tobacco settlement money to it. That transfer has been held up by the courts.

Each of the student bodies plans to adopt resolutions and forward them to the governor and legislators.