Lawmakers ask Regents to reverse decision to cut four UNM sports

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Five Democratic state lawmakers on Monday pledged to look for ways to save the sports being cut at the University of New Mexico and said they wished UNM had asked them for financial help – or included them in the conversation – before the Board of Regents last week voted to eliminate four Lobo sports and drastically alter the rosters of two more.

At a news conference Monday organized by Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee chair, and Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, the lawmakers said they are committed to saving all Lobo sports, though the high-profile men’s Lobo soccer team received the most attention.

“I am fully confident that the state of New Mexico will play Division I soccer in 2019 and beyond,” Maestas said, “because as New Mexicans, we are committed to solving problems. We have to shed this psychology that we can’t do these things.”

Last Thursday, the regents voted 6-0 to accept a recommendation from UNM President Garnett Stokes and Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez, both in their first year at UNM, to eliminate sports. The cuts included discontinuing in the summer of 2019 men’s soccer, the men’s and women’s ski teams and the women’s beach volleyball team while also discontinuing the diving portion of the women’s swimming and diving team and cutting in almost half the men’s rosters of track and field and cross country teams.

The vote came after years of financial struggles in the Athletics Department, when operated at a deficit nine of 11 years, and several months after regents approved a plan that called for a “reduction in sports” of $1.9 million by 2019.

“I didn’t have anybody ask me for any new money,” Lundstrom said. “There was never a supplemental request put forward for Athletics. That’s how we know what’s going on. If somebody doesn’t ask, we don’t know about it.”

When asked if they had specific plans for how to save any of the programs, Lundstrom said she may propose legislation next session on the subject, but was still working out details of any such proposal.

She also called into question the transparency of the process.

“I recognize that the Board of Regents is an independent governance structure,” Lundstrom said. “But as a public institution, are they so independent that the people of New Mexico can be ignored?”

Stokes said at a town hall meeting on Monday with UNM staff that she recognized the short notice between the release of her recommendations last Wednesday night and Thursday morning’s meeting for a vote.

“The reality is that report was being fine-tuned until the very last moment and so what we’ll be doing there for greater transparency is putting out as soon as we possibly can everything that went into that report and why we landed where we did,” she said. “Sometimes we have to back up and do some of the work afterward when you’ve had to do so much work that’s so sensitive. It’s about trying to provide as much information that we can. There’s a lot we’re going to have to do in that arena.”

Announced earlier this month and billed as a dialogue between Stokes and UNM’s employees, the town hall was not dedicated to athletics. But Stokes addressed the recent decision to cut sports in her opening remarks and referenced athletics a few times more in the hourlong event, which also covered topics like campus safety and staff morale.

Asked why the state’s appropriations bill, House Bill 2, each year has approved about a half million more dollars in funding for New Mexico State University Athletics than for UNM Athletics, Lundstrom said she didn’t know what led to that decision, but would research why. NMSU received $3,117,600 in the latest budget for athletics compared to UNM’s $2,617,300.

UNM’s Executive Vice President for Finance David Harris told the Journal via an emailed statement that the university has, in fact, been asking for years to at least get as much as NMSU.

“For the past several years, since the significant differential in recurring appropriations between UNM and NMSU was instituted, UNM has requested HAFC (House Appropriations and Finance Committee) add-ons and Senate Finance Committee amendments to House Bill 2 in order to equalize the state appropriate for Division 1 schools,” he wrote. “We anticipate making this request once again in 2019.”

None of the lawmakers Monday addressed UNM’s non-financial reason for cutting sports, which it said were necessary to become compliant with federal Title IX mandates to get female participation rates in proportion with the school’s general enrollment.

Whatever happened in the past, said House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, there is now a receptive audience in state government wanting to help stop these sports from being cut.

“At this point in time, we as legislators are coming forward to say there’s an opportunity to talk,” Williams Stapleton said. “There’s an opportunity to negotiate. And at this point in time, let’s make it happen.”

In October 2016, former UNM Athletic Director Paul Krebs fired a very specific warning shot.

“We’re either going to have to find additional help or revenue long term or we’re going to have to look at some very difficult decisions from an expense standpoint,” Krebs told the Regents at a public meeting after UNM reported $1.54 million shortfall for fiscal year 2016 alone. “I just don’t think the model can sustain itself. It’s unrealistic for us to continue to expect to generate more and more revenues from the fan base in this community based on the economy.”

UNM Athletics has overspent its budget nine of the past 11 years and faced several state investigations or oversight measures of its finances in 2017.

Lundstrom did not specifically answer a reporter’s question as to why lawmakers didn’t try to step in the past few years.

UNM Soccer Coach Jeremy Fishbein said in an interview after the news conference that if anything happens, it needs to occur soon. The sport won’t be cut until July 1, 2019, but his players are already being recruited by other schools for this season, which starts in a few weeks.

Joining Lundstrom, Maestas and Williams Stapleton at the press conference were Rep. Debra M. Sariñana, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque. A prepared statement in support of keeping all Lobo sports written by U.S. Rep Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democratic nominee for governor, was also read at the press conference.

Journal staff writer Jessica Dyer contributed to this article.

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