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.
Governors don’t usually sign a budget twice in one year. But this is no normal year. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gave her blessing to New Mexico’s revised budget legislation Tuesday, but she also used her veto power to cancel some of the cuts legislators approved during the special session. “We must recalibrate our state’s budget to meet these challenging times,” Lujan Grisham wrote in a letter to the state House of Representatives upon signing House Bill 1. “However, we should not lose sight of the important work that is still needed to create lasting opportunities for all New Mexicans.”
The budget plan uses a combination of spending cuts, reserves and federal funding to deal with a projected $2 billion drop in state revenue for the next fiscal year, which begins Wednesday.
The New Mexico House of Representatives may have passed the main budget bill, but the spending plan is unlikely to get to the governor’s desk without a slashing. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is more than irked at the version of the budget the other chamber sent over. Sen. John Arthur Smith is promising to “get real aggressive” in finding areas to cut and free up needed revenue. “I will admit that I’ve been more annoyed with this budget cycle and what was sent over to us,” said Smith, D-Deming, referring to House Bill 2. “Because of the reserve targets — they knew darn well what they were.”
When the House passed its $7.6 billion budget bill last week, it said the legislation called for stashing away 26 percent in reserves, which would be in line with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s spending plan at a time when the state is projecting sizable new revenues from oil and gas production.
A scholarship plan aimed at covering all college tuition and expense costs for New Mexicans cleared yet another hurdle when members of the Senate Education Committee voted 5-2 to send it to the Senate Finance Committee. But the bill may face deeper scrutiny once it gets there since a Legislative Finance Committee fiscal impact report says it may cost much more than the Higher Education Department estimates. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the program would cost about $35 million a year when she unveiled the proposal last year. Reacting to concerns expressed early in the session, the bill’s sponsors worked on a revamp to make it more palatable to lawmakers. Their alterations increased the cost to $45 million.
The outlook for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s tuition-free college scholarship, one of her signature initiatives for the legislative session, had started to seem dubious. A budget bill the House passed last week for fiscal year 2021 included $35 million for financial aid programs — but no funding for the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship that Lujan Grisham had announced with fanfare in the fall. The effort would boost enrollment and graduation numbers at state colleges and universities, she said, and strengthen the state’s workforce. But legislators had raised concerns that her proposal didn’t do enough to direct funding toward the lowest-income students. The Governor’s Office and lawmakers collaborated on an overhaul to address those concerns, and the House Education Committee renewed hope Monday that her plan to ultimately provide free tuition could become a reality for some 55,000 eligible New Mexico students each year who attend in-state schools.