Despite the wide variety of topics lawmakers will delve into starting Tuesday, this 30-day legislative session is meant to prioritize one thing: the budget.
It can be an intimidating monolith. And while its hundreds of line items representing multitudes of state agencies provide plenty of room for disagreement, there’s actually a fairly close connection between the budget recommendations recently released by the executive and legislative branches.
The governor is calling for an 8.4 percent increase to $7.68 billion for the fiscal year 2021 budget, while the committee recommends a 6.5 percent increase to $7.54 billion. Either plan would give New Mexico its second straight year of major budget increases fueled by unprecedented oil production in the southeast corner of the state.
Still, there will be debate, and it may not just be nibbling around the edges.
Tension is likely to center on one key area where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislative Finance Committee haven’t seen eye to eye — an Opportunity Scholarship that would provide tuition-free college for New Mexico residents. Announced amid much fanfare last fall, the Lujan Grisham-backed initiative would require $35 million to pay for students’ tuition and fees not already covered by the lottery scholarship and federal Pell grants.
“This investment in our New Mexico students and in our higher education ecosystem will yield significant economic benefits, including better employment opportunities, higher overall incomes for New Mexicans and a stronger workforce for New Mexico’s economy,” Lujan Grisham’s spending plan states.
Yet despite the administration’s heavy emphasis on the proposal, the Legislative Finance Committee is recommending legislators approve a much different plan: a $35 million financial aid package for higher education.
The two proposals may sound similar, but they’re not.
While the governor wants the sum to help cover tuition for everyone, legislators have specific, need-based targets in mind. They want to put the aid toward a financial aid program for students who don’t qualify for other aid, a scholarship for people who want to become teachers and a transfer of money to the lottery scholarship.
The governor also is asking for $35 million in recurring funds, while $30 million of the legislative panel’s request would be a one-time appropriation.
“What I’m hearing from my colleagues is the Opportunity Scholarship is going to lend itself to quite a bit of debate,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of both the Legislative Finance Committee and the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
The state’s colleges and universities have offered somewhat mixed reviews. Four-year schools say they support free tuition and laud the governor for having met with them to discuss the proposal.
“This scholarship in whatever form it takes is going to reduce barriers to higher ed,” said Richard Bailey, president of Northern New Mexico College in Española. “That is good for everyone in New Mexico.”
Yet some colleges have concerns. One is that while students currently use Pell grants to help with both tuition and living expenses, under the proposed new structure, Pell grants would be used only for tuition, with the new scholarship picking up any remaining tuition that’s still uncovered, said Marc Saavedra, executive director of the Council of University Presidents.
As a result, lower-income students may have trouble getting help to cover living expenses such as books, transportation, housing and food. Those costs can often be a greater financial obstacle to prospective students than tuition, which is already quite low in New Mexico.
“Right now, the way it comes across is that Pell would be only for tuition and fees,” Saavedra said. “We’re saying, ‘No, we think you need to look at students using it for other expenses and then the Opportunity Scholarship kicks in.’ ”
Smith, D-Deming, said he also understood the universities were concerned the scholarship could help wealthy students more than poor ones.
“I think what their argument is — the lowest income students would be qualifying for Pell,” Smith said. “The middle- and the higher-income students wouldn’t be qualifying for that, so the bulk of the Opportunity monies would be going to the middle or the upper income.”
The LFC also put forth this argument in a brief on higher education published Monday.
“Several researchers have found that tuition and fee costs are not the obstacle to students who pursue a college degree, especially in states as generous as New Mexico with very low tuition,” the brief said. “Rather, the researchers highlight the cost of attendance — cost remaining after scholarships and grants — is the financial obstacle for low- and middle-income students in particular.”
The Governor’s Office said its focus on free tuition is important because the cost of taking classes is a significant obstacle for New Mexicans to access higher education.
“Is the ‘opposing’ argument that we shouldn’t do it because it doesn’t cover absolutely everything? That’s fallacy,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office. “That’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
Universities also are concerned that the new scholarship program would require them to sign memoranda of understanding to improve support services for students, such as tutoring and advising in order to improve student retention, Saavedra said.
Yet schools say the budget recommendations don’t provide much funding for such efforts. Saavedra pointed out the executive branch is calling for only a 0.9 percent increase in “instruction and general” funding, which is the main appropriation colleges and universities use for their operations.
“We would like to see a higher increase,” Saavedra said.
The Governor’s Office said schools already have student support structures in place.
Of course, there will be other areas of budgetary debate.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, chairwoman of the New Mexico House Appropriations and Finance Committee, has already voiced concern about the governor’s plan to increase spending on early childhood education. Lujan Grisham has called for a $74 million increase in early childhood funding to be administered by the newly created Early Childhood Education and Care Department. That would include expanding programs such as prekindergarten, home visiting, child care assistance and family nutrition.
Yet the Legislative Finance Committee has called for a lower overall early childhood budget for the new department than the governor — $390 million instead of $440.5 million — and the Governor’s Office has said the lawmakers’ proposal “would result in devastating outcomes for children across the state.”
There’s also a discrepancy over pay increases. The Legislative Finance Committee has proposed a 3 percent pay increase for teachers and school employees, compared to the governor’s proposal of a 4 percent boost for teachers and 3 percent for other state workers.