State Finance Committee Meets In Socorro

SOCORRO, N.M. July 20, 2011 – The state Legislative Finance Committee (LFC), which makes recommendations to the Legislature for funding state government, higher education and public schools, wrapped up a two-day meeting on the New Mexico Tech campus Friday.

 The state Legislative Finance Committee met in Socorro last week and discussed higher education at length.

The committee thanked Dr. Daniel H. López, Tech President, for his hospitality and the fine accommodations afforded members; and state Rep. Don L. Tripp (Dist. 49) for hosting the group at the Tripp home last Thursday evening.

The sessions were informative, covering such issues as unemployment insurance, the Lottery Scholarship, Medicaid fraud; and ended on an optimistic note regarding state revenue for FY12.

The announcement by Demesia Padilla, Secretary for the Taxation and Revenue Department, that the state’s General Fund revenue forecast is $111 million greater than anticipated was good news to President López.

“We are cautiously optimistic that the worst of the financial storm may be over,” López said. “And we were delighted with the opportunity to host the LFC and bring members up to date on everything New Mexico Tech has to offer to the state and its students.”

López echoed the sentiments of the University’s faculty and staff in hoping that state finances can bounce back enough to provide some respite from more than three years of budget cuts and frozen salaries.

“Even though personal income was greater than expected over the past year, and oil and gas revenues were 42 percent higher than FY 10, we’re in no position to celebrate – at least not yet,” said the President.

“But, again, having LFC members on campus did give us an opportunity to underscore the need, which I share with my colleagues across the state, for some good news for our hard-working faculty and staff,” he said.

“The numbers are encouraging, but this is no time to go on a spending spree,” said Richard May, Secretary for the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA).

An unexpected disaster, such as flooding as a result of recent wildfires, “could eat up the numbers Demesia mentioned,” May said, adding that other concerns are the debate in Washington, DC over the debt ceiling and health care reform.

“Medicaid is a wild card,” he continued. “We don’t know (what to expect) at the moment.”

Another issue of statewide concern is how much state employees may have to cough up to offset liabilities in New Mexico’s major pension fund, currently estimated in excess of $16 million.

“There are a number of things we could talk about regarding additional spending already in the pipeline,” May said, who urged “continued restraint and caution . . . you can see how $111 million in additional revenue can quickly evaporate.”

“I’m still concerned there will be a greater demand for state services than the state can cover,” he said.

N.M. Legislative Lottery Scholarship

Perhaps the most significant discovery uncovered Friday was that New Mexico high school students are not required to file a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to receive the Lottery Scholarship, and thus may be unaware of other financial resources.

“I’m surprised that every college doesn’t require a FAFSA,” said state Sen. Bernadette Sanchez (Dist. 26) of Albuquerque, a school counselor. “This is good information to know – it (FAFSA) should be a requirement.”

“It was certainly enlightening to me that we are not doing what we could do to force students to file an application for federal aid,” said state Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort (Dist. 19) of Sandia Park, who indicated that the issue will be addressed at the 2012 Legislative session.

In filing a FAFSA, aside from providing eligible students with a potential source of financial support, the students would provide the university with critical financial information which would help in designing higher educational state support for New Mexico students wishing to attend college.

Discussion followed a presentation by Anne Sturevant, director of Enrollment Services and Access Initiatives with The College Board Advocacy & Policy Center in Duluth, Ga.

Sturevant cited well-worn statistics regarding the educational profile of New Mexico students, in that, according to national 2008 statistics:

  • The percentage of students earning high school credentials (diploma or GED) was 80 percent for Hispanics compared with 92 percent for whites;
  • Of the 29 percent of Hispanics that enroll in college, only 13 percent will earn a BA degree, compared with 40 percent for whites;
  • The national average for students applying for federal Pell loans was 25 percent, compared with 21 percent for New Mexico;
  • Educational and per-capital income levels for Hispanics in the state fall below those of whites.

And, unlike growth in New Mexico’s neighboring states, its population of students in the educational pipeline shows a stable, relatively flat pattern.

“Hispanic students dominate (statistics), but they lose in getting degrees,” Sturevant said.

“Affordability is subjective when people are making decisions without complete information,” she said. “They just don’t know what they don’t know.”

Sturevant noted that many high schools in other states require their students to fill out a FAFSA, even if they don’t plan to go to college; often this assignment is a curriculum requirement, as established by both school districts and state boards of education.

Two other issues raised during discussions were how to prepare students for college, and how to engage students early.

State Rep. Edward Sandoval (Dist. 17) of Albuquerque quoted New Mexico Tech’s López as having seen during his international travels that other countries, particularly China, have students able to sit through very long lectures.

“Not here,” Sandoval said. “In addition, our students aren’t ready to go to college.”

He noted that CNM, formerly Albuquerque’s Technical Vocational Institute (TVI) has gotten away from its original mission to provide non-college-bound students with lucrative trade skills.

Sandoval quipped that employees in some technical trades “make more money than Dr. Dan.”

“What are we doing wrong?” he asked rhetorically.

Beffort agreed, saying that laying fault was a chicken-and-egg situation.

“We need more accountability for the first three grades,” she said, addressing data showing that if students are not engaged by the third grade, their education will be an uphill battle.

Sixty-seven percent of college students in New Mexico graduate within five or six years, according to state Rep. Larry Larrañaga (Dist. 27) of Albuquerque; however, that percentage drops to 9 percent if students have to take two or more remedial classes.

Plus, remediation is expensive. “We have some intervention strategies,” said Michelle Arnold, Director for State and Legislative Outreach with The College Board.

“Among benchmarks are how students are doing in the eighth and ninth grades,” said Arnold, who did give New Mexico kudos for its Advanced Prep (AP) programs, which she said were “quite impressive, given all the statistics.”

State Rep. Tripp said that as a state, “We’re not selling our product,” so far as applying strategic marketing and other strategies.

“If we’re trying to force-feed education, then we’re on the wrong side of the horse,” Tripp said.

– NMT –

By Valerie Kimble/New Mexico Tech