From the Roundhouse: Needle in a Haystack

February 14th, 2014 at 8:21 pm by under Latest Posts, Politics

One critical issue, too many solutions.

That’s the problem within a problem of lottery scholarship solvency.

The problem itself is less complicated to lay out. In the last couple of years, lawmakers have had to shift money from different places into the fund to pay for those tuition scholarships. But time has effectively run out.

Here’s the fiscal impact report:

As forecasted by the Legislature and executive branch, LLSP will deplete all remaining fund balances in FY14 unless supplemental funding is provided. Lottery revenues are expected to remain flat and insufficient to meet the full cost of funding tuition for all eligible students. Since scholarship expenditures cannot exceed available revenues, significant changes are required to maintain program solvency.

And there are a lot of ideas on what those “significant changes” should be. The big fight, as it often is with college scholarships, has been between merit and need. Some lawmakers argue the standards to earn the lottery scholarship need to be hiked to ensure the best students benefit. Other lawmakers argue that the students with the most financial need should be entitled to the biggest share of the available tuition money.

There are still more proposals along different lines, decreasing the number of semesters the lottery scholarship is awarded or increasing the number of credit hours needed to qualify. Another idea would increase the motor vehicle excise tax and send that money to pay for lottery scholarships.

In all, there are 11 different bills dealing with the problem.

But Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, attacked the issue in a very different way.

“If you have a polio epidemic, you don’t bring a truckload of crutches,” Harper said. “You bring a vaccine.”

Harper says the real problem isn’t low standards or students not taking enough classes. It is, simply stated, scholarship (tuition) costs are growing faster than the revenue the fund gets.

So HB 263 has a simple solution guaranteed to keep the fund solvent. Simply take the amount of money in the fund and divide it by the number of students who are eligible to get that scholarship. Then the state determines each year what percentage of tuition the scholarship will cover.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle heaped praise on the bill, calling it a fair way to handle the solvency issue no matter how much money is funneled into the lottery scholarship fund itself.

For as heated and divided as the overall debate on lottery scholarships is, it’s always eye-catching when a proposal passes 65-1.

It’s unclear how students will react. The bill effectively guarantees students will have to chip in for tuition when they may not have had to before. And because it has an emergency clause, any reduced scholarships would go into effect next school year, meaning students who may have been relying on it will suddenly find themselves with an unexpected bill.

That problem may go away in whatever the final version is. Because there are a lot of ideas on the table, it wouldn’t be shocking to see HB 263′s ideas merged with other proposed fixes (for instance, combining it with provisions in Sen. John Arthur Smith’s, D-Deming, bill to continue covering tuition costs for students already enrolled at UNM or other universities.

HB 263 itself may not be the one to carry those ideas as it was assigned to three different Senate committees and there are less than 6 days remaining in the legislative session.

 

INTERESTING BILL OF THE DAY

SJR 13

Call this one the zombie constitutional amendment because every time it appears to be in trouble, it gets resurrected.

SJR 13 is a proposed constitutional amendment hiking minimum wage from $7.50 to $8.30 an hour and providing annual cost of living increases every year after that.

A minimum wage hike remains one of the top Democratic priorities for both policy and political reasons. Just looking politically, having a minimum wage constitutional amendment on the ballot is perceived by Dems to be a potential winner at the ballot box come November. After all, Albuquerque voters overwhelmingly approved a similar wage hike at the November 2012 election.

But as I mentioned, it’s been a tough fight to get to this point.

The proposed amendment appeared sure to die in Senate Rules after Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, announced he was against putting minimum wage in the state constitution. That would’ve led to a 5-5 vote in committee, stalling the bill for good. However, in the face of significant outside pressure, Sen. C. Sanchez relented to allowing the proposal out of committee with a “No Recommendation”.

The next major challenge came on the Senate floor. Because it’s a constitutional amendment, it needed 22 votes to be approved. A roll call vote was requested after significant debate on SJR 13 on the Senate floor and that led to some tense moments.

If 4 Democrats joined Republicans, SJR 13 was dead for good. If just 3 Democrats joined Republicans, the bill would survive.

Potential swing votes Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, opted to “Pass” when their names were called, electing to wait. My speculation is they were watching to see whether there would be enough Democrats joining Republicans to hold up the bill.

Based on floor debate, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, was a sure “No” vote. That meant everything hinged, once again, on a familiar name.

Senator Clemente Sanchez now held the fate of SJR 13 in his hands. If he voted “No”, based on his previous stance, the constitutional amendment would likely die because, as I speculated, Papen and Munoz would be likely to join him.

But if he voted “Yes”, it would be a significant reversal and mean that SJR 13 had the votes to pass no matter what Papen and Munoz did.

As the roll call vote shows, Sen. Clemente Sanchez reversed course and voted “Yes” and Papen and Munoz followed suit.

If you thought that was hard, the next step is even harder.

SJR 13 is now in the House. It has just one committee, HVEC, where that committee’s chair Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces, voted to kill a similar constitutional amendment last year.

After that, it needs 36 votes in the House to get on the ballot because it is a constitutional amendment and not a bill. Right now there are 35 Democrats healthy, but there are daily rumors in the hallways of the Roundhouse that Rep. Ernest Chavez, D-Albuquerque, could make a Willis Reed-like return.

We’ll have an answer by Thursday at noon.

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