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State senators push for new regent selection process

Jeff Steinborn

Two state senators are pushing to depoliticize the selection of university regents — a process that frequently bogs down in the Legislature.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, and Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, have sponsored a constitutional amendment calling for the creation of a bipartisan nomination committee to evaluate regents candidates. The committee would come up with a list of potential regents and forward it the governor, who would make the final selections.

Mark Moores

Currently, the governor alone is responsible for choosing all regents besides the student representative, although the Senate then votes on confirmation.

Steinborn argues that the proposed nomination committee would open up the job to a broader range of candidates.

“I do recognize we have some very good regents and have through the years, but it has also been treated as just a political plum job for some people who clearly have no basis in higher education,” Steinborn said. “We want to make sure we have the best people leading our higher education institutions.”

Moores said he hopes the new system would put an end to the frequent political clashes between the Legislature and governor during the confirmation process.

Gov. Susana Martinez is still trying to get 11 university regents confirmed after months of delays. In total, nearly 70 appointees to various boards and commissions are awaiting a decision from the Senate Rules Committee.

The logjam “doesn’t serve any of the universities and doesn’t serve the state,” Moores said.

“I want to come up with a better system that gets people with merit, not political connections, on these boards of regents so they can be run efficiently,” he said.

Under the proposed amendment, no more than half of the nominating committee members would come from the same political party.

The plan isn’t new — Steinborn has taken on regent selection practices annually for the past several years.

But Steinborn said he thinks the amendment could make it through the Legislature this time and finally get on the ballot.

A growing number of lawmakers are supportive, including some who opposed previous incarnations of the proposal, Steinborn said.

Moores, in fact, was in that camp, but Steinborn made some changes to the amendment and won his backing.

“Sen. Steinborn is very tenacious,” Moores said. “I think this is the time to do it.”

With Martinez entering the last year of her tenure, the amendment would go into effect at the beginning of a new administration if it wins approval from lawmakers and voters.

Similar regent nomination committees have been successful in other states, according to a 2008 Michigan State University study.

The paper — titled “The Relationship Between Selection Processes of Public Trustees and State Higher Education Performance” — notes that top-performing states require regents to meet certain qualifications and have systems in place to scrutinize their fitness for the job.

New Mexico was rated among the five lowest-performing states.

“There is no evidence of clear qualifications or scrutiny among the bottom-performing states,” the study says.