Members of the Legislative Finance Committee from both sides of the aisle cited concerns Monday about the governor’s $35 million plan for a scholarship program that aims to make tuition free for many in-state students attending New Mexico’s public colleges and universities.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, one of her key initiatives for the 2020 legislative session, would make higher education accessible to a larger number of high school graduates, lower the burden of student loans and help reverse a trend of declining enrollment at colleges.

But lawmakers’ comments during a hearing on the proposal Monday, a day before the session’s start, raised questions about whether it will gain enough support to pass the Legislature.

“I see a whole lot of problems,” Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, a member of the Legislative Finance Committee, told Higher Education Secretary Kate O’Neill.

Among the problems Muñoz cited: The scholarship could create an incentive for eligible students to choose a four-year university over a two-year community college, leaving smaller schools with stagnant or declining enrollment. Muñoz said he’d like to see the tuition aid apply to community colleges first to increase student numbers at those institutions. Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat who chairs the committee, had the same concern.

“We are going to encourage additional growth at the most expensive schools in the state, at the expense of the comprehensive schools and two-year schools,” Smith said.

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said he fears the governor’s plan would dissuade students from seeking other grants or scholarships. He noted a committee report on the scholarship proposal that said New Mexico students who fail to apply for federal student aid leads to a loss of about $15 million in potential aid annually.

“This takes away the motivation to look for other sources,” Harper said.

Mark Valenzuela, an analyst with the Legislative Finance Committee, also told lawmakers the governor’s $35 million estimated cost for the program might be low. It could cost up to $49 million to enact the plan, he said.

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham, said she did not see the committee’s concerns as an obstacle for the Opportunity Scholarship.

“Students want this, parents want this, educators want this,” Sackett said. “They want access to higher education opportunities, and that’s what we are trying to do.”

According to the Higher Education Department, enrollment at the state’s public colleges and universities has declined by more than 14 percent over the past five years.

Under the governor’s plan, the $35 million would cover tuition and fees remaining after the state’s Legislative Lottery Scholarship and federal Pell grants are applied for some 55,000 students who meet the qualifying criteria and maintain a grade point average of at least 2.5 — or 2.0 for adults over 24 who are enrolled at two-year schools.

The Legislative Finance Committee proposed an alternate higher education aid plan, which also was projected to cost $35 million. Among other measures, the lawmakers’ proposal would increase funding for the Legislative Lottery Scholarship by $9.7 million.

The lottery scholarship program, funded by lottery ticket sales, once covered 100 percent of college tuition costs for eligible students. But as ticket sales declined, so did scholarship revenues, which eventually prompted lawmakers to decrease the rate of coverage for each student.

The scholarship now covers about 60 percent of tuition costs. The additional $9.7 million would boost that to about 82 percent.

The committee also proposed using $10 million to provide grants of $1,000 each to 10,000 low-income students.

Despite the differences in the two higher education aid plans, Smith said he didn’t think legislators were at odds with the governor.

“We have a common goal: more college graduates for the state of New Mexico,” he said.

But lawmakers and the governor might disagree over how to “achieve that goal and keep it within the affordability of the taxpayers of New Mexico,” he said.

“I’m sure we’re gonna have this whole thing fixed in the next 30 days,” Smith said at the end of the hearing, a remark that drew laughter.

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General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

(6) comments

John Puerner

I think this legislative session is going to be a reality check for MLG.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Amazing none of these people can do the math involved here. $35 million would only provide $636 a year for students eligible, have they looked at what tuition and fees are at all NM colleges and universities???? Idiots.

Craig O'Hare

It's possible you don't understand how this proposal fits into the existing Lottery Scholarship and federal Pell grant tuition assistance programs. Have you read the full Opportunity Scholarship proposal? That might help you understand "the math" better and contribute to your overall understanding rather than just calling people "idiots.".

Chris Mechels

This bill is half baked, like many of the Governor's ideas. She needs to drink less coffee and learn how to think, rather than running through walls. For starters, they need to make the Lottery Scholarships "needs based" as it is in most states, and do more to allow for part time students access. MLG would just build a bad idea upon a bad idea. She seems focused on Public Relations, Full Stop, and the facts don't matter. She does not "get" that her role is to "execute" the laws, not make them. Worse, in many ways, than even Susana.

Craig O'Hare

"She does not "get" that her role is to "execute" the laws, not make them." Interesting perspective. Most people understand and accept that governors of states, just like the President of the U.S., have always played a huge role in promoting legislation and getting it passed (or killed in many instances). It's their authority to sign or veto legislation that gives them that power. They don't simply sit back and wait for the legislature to pass bills and then just "execute" them. Never have. And, again, that's because if a Governor doesn't support a particular bill passed by the legislature, he or she will simply veto it. I'm not addressing this particular tuition proposal - just a little basic civics about a governor's role with respect to legislation.

Chris Mechels

Why do the call it the "Executive" Branch? Most early, Legislatures in the US were part time, so the Executive, which was very small, kept the fire burning, and executed. New Mexico with its pathetic, part time, Legislature, seems incapable of any oversight, so that role goes wanting. A very big mistake was allowing the Governor two terms. Every Governor since then has two terms, and they have come to dominate the state. We need, for starters, to cut the Governor back to one term. Today the Governor has far too much power, which is why two US Representatives ran for the office. Our government is totally our of balance, and only works reasonably well when the Republicans hold the Governor's office, to balance the Democratic Legislature. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the Trifecta is pretty much totally corrupt. MLG seems clueless, and some of her Department Secretary choices, at Department of Public Safety, and the Corrections Department should have never been confirmed. Pathetic New Mexico, blatting about "leading the nation" while ranking dead last in most categories.

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