- Associated Press - Thursday, February 20, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The Legislature crossed the finish line Thursday of a 30-day session after agreeing on a plan to temporarily shore up a lottery-funded college scholarship program.

Shortly before adjourning, the House and Senate approved a proposal to use liquor tax money to help finance the scholarship program for two years starting in 2015. Until that starts to flow, a state budget bill provides extra money to keep the program solvent.

Cutbacks in scholarships have been looming because the program is running short of cash. Lottery proceeds aren’t keeping pace with college tuition increases.

If cuts become necessary, the legislation calls for students to receive a percentage of average tuition.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez expressed support for the scholarship fix.

“It’s a solution that protects the core of the scholarship and is fair to all students,” Martinez said at a news conference.

Lawmakers expressed hope that students won’t have their scholarships reduced for the next several years because of the extra funding. That gives the Legislature time to continue looking for a permanent solution to the program’s financial problems.

Democrats and Republicans alike described the session as a success because lawmakers completed their most important assignment - a $6.2 billion state budget to finance public education and government services next year.

“Not everybody got what they wanted, but for the most part we got our business accomplished. We got a budget up to the governor that I think the governor can sign,” said House GOP Leader Donald Bratton of Hobbs.

Lawmakers passed a flurry of bills in the closing hours of the session, including proposals to finance $400 million in capital improvement and water projects and to prevent graduation requirements from changing for students once they enter the ninth grade.

The session played out against the backdrop of a looming election in which Martinez is seeking another four-year term and Democrats are trying to hang on to their majority in the 70-member House. Two of the governor’s Democratic challengers are state senators.

Martinez said “the tone of this session was too partisan and too political at times, too extreme at times.”

“I understand it’s an election year but that’s really no excuse. There are those who wanted to fan the flames of partisanship. Democratic legislators are attacked for working across the aisle and voting their conscience. Some groups attacked me for working with Democrats and finding common ground. As leaders we have to reject the hyper-partisanship and put the people of New Mexico first,” Martinez said.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, said he was disappointed that lawmakers failed to approve proposed constitutional amendments to increase the state’s minimum wage and tap into a permanent fund to provide more money for early childhood education programs.

He vowed not to give up on the proposal to increase permanent fund payouts for early childhood education.

“We’re going to continue to fight that battle. We’re going to come back next year,” Sanchez said.

Republicans contended that Democrats pushed the minimum wage increase as a constitutional amendment to bypass the governor and in hopes of boosting turnout of Democratic-leaning voters in the general election if the proposal was on the ballot.

The measure would have asked voters to increase the state’s minimum wage to $8.30 an hour from $7.50, and then automatically raise it in the future for inflation. The proposal failed in the House after passing the Senate.

Constitutional amendments go straight to voters to decide. In contrast, the governor has the power to veto bills that change state statutes.

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