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Deadline nears on higher education funding

SANTA FE, N.M. — The budget clock is ticking louder for New Mexico’s colleges and universities.

The state Higher Education Department is asking they submit their 2018 budgets by June 1 for approval. The new deadline, outlined in a memo from Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron late last week, “anticipates” an impending fix to the problem that has dogged the budget process for nearly two months already: The schools still do not have state funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

State Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron

As part of a rancorous budget battle with lawmakers, Gov. Susana Martinez took what she’s called a temporary step to veto $745 million in higher education funding outlined in a Legislature-approved spending plan – a move that kept some schools from completing their individual budgets.

But clarity could come when the special session convenes on Wednesday, as both the Republican governor and leaders in the Democratic-controlled Legislature say they will prioritize the restoration of higher education funding.

Damron wrote in a Friday memo to school leaders that the new timeline and June 1 deadline “anticipates” Martinez will sign the appropriations bill early in the session. Damron directed schools to prepare budgets around the Legislature-approved funding and for their governing boards to meet “as quickly as possible” to approve the budgets for submission once Martinez signs the act. HED will then have one week to review the budgets and submit them to the Department of Finance and Administration for review and approval.

Should the governor not sign the appropriations bill “in the early days” of the session, Damron wrote that her office would send “further communication adjusting the guidance.”

Damron was traveling Monday, and no one from the department was made available for a Journal interview.

The governing boards for the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University each scheduled meetings this week.

UNM – which has an annual budget of about $2.8 billion – will host its annual budget summit at 1 p.m. Wednesday, just an hour after the special session starts in Santa Fe. The regents are set to approve 2017-18 tuition rates but can only complete a “preliminary budget” if the state appropriation is still not settled, according to UNM spokeswoman Cinnamon Blair.

“After we receive the appropriation, we will finalize the UNM budget and the (regents) will vote on adopting the final budget,” Blair said in a written statement.

New Mexico State University’s governing board will meet Friday to approve a budget, though spokesman Justin Bannister said it will decide tuition at a later session.