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Editorial: Quit penny-ante bets, fix the lottery scholarships

Should unclaimed prizes in the New Mexico Lottery be used to get the college scholarship fund closer to solvency? Probably.

But $2 million isn’t going to go very far when the disparity between revenues and tuition costs is $25 million a year and likely rising. That was Gov. Susana Martinez’s point in vetoing the diversion this session. Rather than encourage lawmakers to continue spending time almost every session turning over couch cushions for what amounts to loose change – a little from the Tobacco Permanent Fund, a little more from the alcohol excise tax – the governor has once again asked for a long-term solvency plan.

It’s past time lawmakers answered her call.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, sponsored the bill to create the scholarships in 1996. In the ensuing years he has proposed using all lottery revenue (1998, ’99, ’01), taking half of the lottery revenue (2000), diverting general fund and tobacco settlement money (2013), diverting liquor excise tax money and increasing the motor vehicle excise tax (2014), making it a needs-based award (2015) and taking any unclaimed prize money (2016). It speaks to the program’s inherent funding flaw that predictions of its insolvency started as early as 2001.

So while lawmakers have tightened up the program on the student side – they must now take a full load of 15 credit hours, with seven semesters covered as a means to encourage four-year graduations – there have been no reforms on the front end, i.e. ensuring recipients are really ready to not only attend but graduate from college via modestly higher eligibility requirements.

In her veto message, the governor vowed to work with lawmakers to adopt reforms during the next session “to preserve this important school assistance for as many New Mexico students as possible.”

Twenty years in, with lottery sales dwindling as scholarship costs grow, it is essential the Legislature stop betting on a fix next year and finally put the program on sound financial footing.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.