Area legislators cautious of quick fix

By Christina Calloway

PNT staff

Area state legislators want to find a solution to the state’s dwindling lottery-financed college scholarship program but are cautious in using the general tax revenues for a temporary solution, as suggested by Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.

Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico, said it’s going to take a major change to fix the fund’s insolvency.

Roch said the program costs $80 million a year to fully cover tuition for all the state’s recipients, but the lottery provides only half of that figure.

The administration estimates the Legislature may need to allocate $15 million to $20 million to cover scholarship costs this year.

“I wouldn’t be opposed to using general fund money, I just think it would be short-sided of us without doing some changes,” said Roch, a member of lottery scholarship work group.

“I think there’s some common sense changes that have to be applied, or else we’re just pouring money down the drain.”

One of those changes Roch is speaking of would be for schools to apply federal financial aid to students’ tuition costs before using lottery scholarship money.

Eastern New Mexico University officials say one in five students of its 4,500-plus undergraduate population are lottery scholarship recipients. For Clovis Community College, 75 current students are accessing the scholarship, according to officials.

“It has a tremendous impact on retention,” said Patrice Caldwell, ENMU’s executive director of planning and analysis, on the importance of maintaining the scholarship fund. “For many families planning to pay for college, the lottery is a critical component.”

Higher Education Secretary Jose Garcia wrote in a letter to colleges and universities that scholarship awards, will be reduced if lawmakers fail to plug a financial shortfall in the program. The Legislature convenes in January for a 30-day session.

Roch said of the solutions he’s been reviewing with the work group, the most substantial proposal would be to partially-fund tuition at different levels for education.

By choosing this solution, Roch said a certain percentage of tuition would be paid for scholarship recipients at a two-year institution and that percentage would increase at the four-year level and be highest for students who attend research institutions.

To qualify for a scholarship currently, New Mexico students must enroll in a public college or university in the state after graduating from high school, attend full time and maintain a 2.5 point grade point average. About 15,000 students received scholarships this fall statewide.

“Other suggestions batted around included raising the GPA for eligible students and defining full-time students at 15 hours,” Roch said.

If no action is taken by the Legislature, state law requires scholarships to be cut to an amount less than 100 percent of tuition to keep the program solvent within available revenue.

Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said all options need to be laid out in front of legislators on this important issue before they make a decision in January.

“We will do our best to figure out a funding mechanism,” Ingle said.

The Martinez administration generally opposes earmarking a new permanent source of revenue for the scholarships as a way of keeping the program solvent in the future, according to Tom Clifford, secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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