SANTA FE – The Senate voted 29-12 on Thursday to approve a bill aimed at unshackling New Mexico’s lottery program, but critics warned the legislation could be anything but a jackpot for about 30,000 university students who rely on lottery-funded scholarships.
The measure, Senate Bill 180, would remove a requirement that the New Mexico Lottery Authority funnel at least 30 percent of its monthly revenue to the popular lottery scholarship program.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the bill’s sponsor, said the move would allow the lottery to award bigger prizes and spend more money on advertising.
That, in turn, could lead to an increase in lottery revenue and more money for scholarships.
“What we’re attempting to do is maximize the bottom line to the state for lottery scholarships,” Smith during Thursday’s debate.
But senators did adopt an amendment stipulating that at least $41 million be funneled to the lottery scholarship program annually – the same amount that went toward scholarships last year.
Without the amendment, argued Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, the lottery would have been able to essentially freeze contributions to the scholarship program.
Some backers of the scholarship program said Thursday that they still oppose the legislation.
“The $41 million floor will become a ceiling because the lottery does not have an incentive to deliver one penny more to scholarships, even if lottery sales increase,” said Fred Nathan, the executive director of Think New Mexico, a Santa Fe-based think tank that pushed for the program’s creation.
Meanwhile, several senators voiced concern about language in the bill that some have said could lead to the state lottery offering slot machines and other types of video gambling. Specifically, the language would add “lottery instant ticket printing and lottery gaming systems” to existing law.
“I want to make sure we’re not inadvertently opening the door to a significant expansion of gambling in New Mexico,” said Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat.
But Smith said the lottery authority is barred from promoting video-gaming systems under existing state gambling compacts between the state and tribes with casinos.
Lottery scratcher ticket sales have gradually declined over recent years, from $86.6 million in the 2008 budget year to $69.8 million in the 2014 budget year, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.
Currently, the lottery scholarship program pays for 90 percent of college tuition for in-state graduates that meet qualification, including a minimum 2.5 GPA. In the 2015 budget year, 30,745 students received scholarships through the program.
A similar bill with a few key differences – including a provision that would have allowed the use of debit cards to buy lottery tickets – passed the Senate last year but stalled in the House.
Journal staff writer Maggie Shepard contributed to this report.