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Lawmakers weigh in on UNM sports budget plight

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Top executives at the University of New Mexico are getting an earful from elected state and federal officials – including those who hold the purse strings to much of the university’s funding – as they consider what sports, if any, to cut.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democratic candidate for governor, spoke to UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez last week and followed up with a letter seeking prompt answers to a series of detailed budget questions.

And she made it clear that she hoped he’ll work on “retaining and supporting all sports” within his department.

State Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the House committee that helps write the state budget, said she has let university leaders know that her phone is ringing off the hook with calls from people who support the men’s soccer, baseball and ski teams.

And university administrators can expect questions from lawmakers about how they arrived at their decision, she said, if they do move to eliminate some sports.

“It just better be a very fair, very transparent process, or they’ve lost all credibility,” Lundstrom said.

The UNM athletics program has faced financial problems for years, repeatedly missing its budget targets and accumulating a $4.7 million deficit to the university’s reserves by last summer.

Lujan Grisham’s letter to Nuñez was dated Friday.

“As a proud former Lobo, I ask that you and President Garnett Stokes work on retaining and supporting all sports within the Athletics Department,” she said in the letter.

Lujan Grisham also sought answers to a series of questions about budgets for each sports team and the decision-making process.

The letter was sent on her congressional stationery, but Lujan Grisham is also a candidate for governor.

If elected, she would have the power to appoint members of UNM’s Board of Regents. She also would have line-item veto authority over the state budget, which provides about $295 million in funding to UNM.

Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican whose term ends Dec. 31, hasn’t weighed in on whether to eliminate sports, spokesman Benjamin Cloutier said.

“This is a decision that will be made by President Stokes and the board,” Cloutier said.

Lundstrom, chairwoman of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers have options.

“There are lots of things we could do legislatively, like say, ‘You can’t cut sports that have a winning season,’ ” she said.

She also questioned whether UNM had provided proper oversight of the athletics budget.

State Sen. Mark Moores, an Albuquerque Republican who played UNM football on a scholarship, said lawmakers should stay out of the sports decision.

“For the Legislature to second-guess and micromanage I don’t think would be appropriate,” he said.

Moores said he supports the university’s efforts at “right-sizing the athletics program” because every public agency must live within its means.

“It’s a very tough decision,” Moores said in an interview, “but I think it has to be done.”

Sen. Cisco McSorley, an Albuquerque Democrat whose district covers much of the UNM area, said he hoped the Board of Regents would find a “Band-Aid” and allow the next governor and regents to make a final decision.

“Eliminating the soccer program would be a huge, stupid mistake,” McSorley said. “It’s the most popular program for young people in Albuquerque and maybe even all of New Mexico.”

Football, he said, is the “elephant in the room” that should be considered for elimination.

“Fewer and fewer children are participating in football,” McSorley said, and he expects other schools to start phasing it out.

He said he hadn’t reached out to UNM officials on the elimination of sports and wasn’t sure whether he would. But he suggested that the handling of sports won’t be a make-or-break decision affecting his views on the university as a whole.

“I always try to make it clear my support for the university is not contingent on any one decision that the president may or may not make,” McSorley said.

State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said he hoped that UNM would avoid the elimination of sports for now. The state’s budget picture has improved dramatically, he said.

“I hope the regents allow a one-year window and give the state an opportunity to save the men’s soccer program,” Maestas said in an interview Friday, just as news of the proposed sports cuts began to spread.

Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this article.


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