February 23, 2021

Opportunity Scholarship bill advances from Senate committee

A bill that would provide tuition assistance for thousands of New Mexico students pursuing degrees at two-year colleges was brought back from the brink of death Monday and is now headed to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.

Senate Bill 135 appropriates $26 million from the general fund for the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship. The amount includes $4 million for a pilot program for students in the state who don’t qualify for the Legislative Lottery Scholarship. 

The Senate Education Committee voted 6-2 Monday to support SB 135.

Acting Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez wrote in an email the bill provides funding to expand the scholarship to “returning adult learners and part-time students.”

“This is our opportunity to transform educational access, improve lives and guide New Mexico’s workforce toward a path to prosperity,” she said.

It’s unclear, however, if the Legislature will approve all of the scholarship funding. A $7.39 billion budget bill making its way through the Legislature — and endorsed Monday by the House Appropriations and Finance Committee — allocates only $5 million for the program.

Rodriguez said her department will continue to advocate for “the full amount requested.” She said $26 million can help 30,000 students — “a quarter of all students enrolled in higher education statewide.”

The Opportunity Scholarship is a pet project of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who introduced the concept in late 2019. Lujan Grisham said the effort would boost enrollment and graduation numbers at the state’s public colleges and universities and strengthen New Mexico’s workforce. The idea was to create a scholarship that would cover all remaining tuition and fees for all in-state students after the lottery scholarship, federal aid and other funds were applied.

The initial legislation faced challenges during the 2020 legislative session, however, after the cost estimate rose to $45 million per year from $26 million.

In the end, the Legislature appropriated $10 million to get the program going at two-year colleges. 

Sen. Bill O’Neill and Rep. Joy Garratt, both Albuquerque Democrats, introduced SB 135 this year to expand the program. But the proposal again ran into trouble.

Two weeks ago, the Senate Education Committee cast two tie votes on the bill, effectively stalling it. Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, a retired educator who cast one of the votes against the bill, said at the time she was concerned about the financial implications.

She voted against it again Monday.

After the hearing, Kernan said the state can probably afford the investment in the next year or two, but New Mexico’s long-term financial future may not be strong enough to sustain “ongoing efforts to maintain it.”

She also takes issue with the $4 million provision for older students who lost out on aid through the state’s lottery scholarship because they took a gap year, took too long to get a degree or temporarily dropped out of college. To qualify for the new funds, those students must be within 36 credit hours of earning a bachelor’s degree. 

Sen. Steve Neville, R-Farmington, said he also is concerned about “the finances and keeping these things going forward.”

He and Kernan said they would rather see the state shore up its struggling lottery scholarship program to help college students. 

Still, Neville joined six Democrats on the committee to move the bill on to the Senate Finance Committee.

SB 135’s fiscal impact report says unofficial reports from New Mexico’s colleges show some 4,900 students received an Opportunity Scholarship in the fall 2020 semester.

That report said the average scholarship per student was about $800 per semester.