Senate president takes aim at NMSU regents

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, left, talks with Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, on the Senate floor in Santa Fe last month. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — Frustration over allegations of political interference at New Mexico’s colleges and universities boiled over Wednesday on the Senate floor.

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, ignited the debate by calling for regents at New Mexico State University to resign — centering on their decision, she said, to strip power from outgoing Chancellor Garrey Carruthers, who sometimes has been at odds with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

Then other senators chimed in with broad complaints about politics at the University of New Mexico, too.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, told his colleagues that they should share in the blame because they have often failed even to hold hearings to confirm regents appointed by Gov. Martinez. In some cases, that means the regents can’t serve.

“I’m very frustrated by the politics on all sides,” Candelaria said.

Papen, in turn, invited her fellow senators to sign onto her letter, which was addressed to the chief of staff for the NMSU regents. It asks the regents to resign.

Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, announced that he would sign the letter. He said regents over the last seven years haven’t always made decisions in the best interest of their institutions.

“My sense is we continue to be lied to,” Sapien said.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said outside political forces are telling regents what to do.

“The fact is, we have regents who have very deep financial ties to the administration, ” Cervantes said, without identifying anyone in particular.

The dustup comes after Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed funding for higher education during a budget standoff last year. Critics said it led to uncertainty that damaged university operations.

Martinez said the removal of higher education funding was just temporary — a move to ensure the budget would be balanced if she and lawmakers didn’t reach agreement on a full spending plan for state government. The funding was restored before the start of the fiscal year.

The Senate this year didn’t hold confirmation hearings on any of Martinez’s three appointees to the UNM Board of Regents.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, expressed disappointment that a proposed constitutional amendment to change how regents are selected — to diminish political influence — was rejected by a Senate committee earlier this month.

New Mexico, he said, has a “culture where regents are the highest form of political patronage.”

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