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Governor signs college scholarship program fix

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Gov. Susana Martinez signed a measure into law Wednesday to help avert possible reductions in a popular college scholarship program.

The program relies on revenue from the state lottery, and cuts loomed because lottery proceeds haven't kept pace with increases in college tuition.

Nearly 18,000 New Mexico students receive the scholarships, which cover the full cost of tuition to attend a public college or university in the state. The state faced the prospect of trimming scholarship amounts without the changes approved by lawmakers and agreed upon by Martinez.

About $19 million in annual liquor tax money will supplement the scholarship program for two years starting in 2015. Until that happens, a newly enacted state budget provides extra money to keep the program solvent.

Currently, students who maintain a certain grade-point average can receive scholarships for up to eight semesters. That will be trimmed to seven semesters for new scholarship recipients as well as some students already receiving the aid.

The financial fix is only temporary. Lawmakers are expected to continue to debate whether to cap scholarship amounts in the future or change student eligibility to control rising program costs.

The governor used her line-item veto powers to resolve a wording error in the measure that could have forced students to wait an extra semester to get a scholarship.

Wednesday was the deadline for the governor to sign or veto bills passed by the Legislature during its recent 30-day session.

Martinez signed measures to:

— Prevent high school graduation requirements from changing for students once they enter the 9th grade. The new law takes effect immediately and also permits marching band, athletics and other classes to meet physical education requirements for high school students. Lawmakers approved the changes in response to a Public Education Department decision to restrict what would meet the physical education requirement.

— Require counties to contribute $26 million a year to a program to help nearly 30 mostly rural hospitals cover health care for poor New Mexicans. The law allows counties to increase their gross receipts taxes by one-twelfth of a percent to cover what must be contributed to the state. The revenue from counties will be used to match available federal money and is projected to generate nearly $150 million for health care. Lawmakers had approved the county funding for three years, but Martinez vetoed the time limit language, making it a permanent requirement. The governor complained that lawmakers didn't require counties to contribute enough, and she directed an administration agency to look for extra state money that could help secure more federal dollars for hospital funding.

— Create five additional judgeships to help deal with case backlogs. There will be an additional magistrate court judge in Dona Ana County and judgeships in the 1st Judicial District of Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Rio Arriba counties; the 2nd District of Bernalillo County; the 5th District of Chaves, Eddy and Lea counties; and the 13th District in Sandoval County.

— Phase in school class-size limits that temporarily were lifted in some districts in recent years because of budget problems. More teachers might be needed in some schools to allow for smaller classes.

— Clarify the appeal right from custody hearing decisions involving children in abuse and neglect cases.

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Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

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