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Dem leaders move to save UNM sports

(Albuquerque Journal photos)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Top Democratic leaders in the state House are beginning their push to save the men’s soccer team at the University of New Mexico from elimination.

They introduced a measure, House Bill 320, that would appropriate $2 million to the UNM Board of Regents for reinstatement of the men’s and women’s skiing teams, beach volleyball and men’s soccer programs – all of which are due to be cut this summer.

UNM, however, is making clear it didn’t ask for the bill, nor has it requested state money to reinstate the sports.

“UNM has not initiated a request for funding to reinstate any discontinued sports offerings,” UNM spokeswoman Cinnamon Blair wrote in an email to the Journal. “We will examine this bill carefully and will provide information for the fiscal impact report.”

It isn’t clear whether the Legislature can require the regents to reverse their decision to cut the sports. The legislation says UNM would have to send the money back if it isn’t spent.

The bill would also require UNM to provide a yearly report to lawmakers about the Athletics Department’s travel expenses, salaries and contracts. In addition, it would empower the influential Legislative Finance Committee to conduct performance evaluations.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said lawmakers want more transparency about athletics expenditures.

“If you’re going to ask us for money, we want to know how it’s going to be spent,” Lundstrom said in an interview.

She also said UNM leaders and regents did not heed lawmakers’ previous requests to work corroboratively to try to save the sports in question.

“I just think they’re important sports,” said Lundstrom, who plans to hold a full committee hearing next month on the subject of university athletics.

Meanwhile, the legislation introduced at the Roundhouse has been referred to just one committee – an indication that it may move quickly in the session.

The bill also has a powerful lineup of Democratic sponsors: House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe; House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton of Albuquerque; Lundstrom; and Reps. Javier Martínez and Antonio “Moe” Maestas, both of Albuquerque.

But the proposal, in its current form, is already generating opposition.

Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, said she opposes the proposal as it stands now but might support it if there are amendments. She likes the financial reporting requirements, but not the appropriation piece of the legislation.

“I view it as almost a bailout,” she said in an interview. “The state of New Mexico already gives a lot of money to UNM, and UNM has to be accountable for their budget.”

Fajardo added that she supports reinstatement of the sports but that it would be micromanaging for the Legislature to tell UNM so precisely how to spend its budget.

Regents’ vote

The university’s Board of Regents over the summer unanimously voted to accept a recommendation from UNM President Garnett Stokes and Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez, both in their first year at UNM, to eliminate the 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 significantly trimming the men’s rosters in track and field and cross country.

The House legislation, meanwhile, mentions only the “skiing, volleyball and men’s soccer programs” as beneficiaries of the proposed $2 million appropriation, which would be built into the department’s year-over-year budget, Lundstrom said.

The regents’ vote came after years of financial struggles in the Athletics Department, which operated at a deficit in eight of the past 11 years. This past fiscal year would have been nine of 11 years in the red had the regents not made a one-time infusion of money it is not asking the department to pay back.

Although the plan called for a “reduction in sports” of $1.9 million by 2019, the proposed cuts would save UNM only a little more than $1 million annually – and even that figure has been called into question by an outside sports economist.

Andy Schwartz, the economist, analyzed the cuts and determined that eliminating sports that have a number of walk-on athletes who pay tuition might reduce the total savings to only a few hundred thousand dollars.

University officials said they also had non-financial reasons for cutting sports, such as coming into compliance with federal Title IX mandates to get female participation rates in proportion with the school’s general enrollment.

The House legislation doesn’t directly address that issue.

Growing mistrust

The bill introduced at the Roundhouse could signal a growing mistrust among lawmakers when it comes to UNM athletics.

Stapleton said Friday that she believes UNM moved too quickly last year to eliminate sports teams.

“The students and their families are really concerned,” she said in a brief interview.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who took office at the start of this month, has also been critical of the regents’ decision. She vowed on the campaign trail that sports slated for elimination would be reinstated under her administration.

As governor, Lujan Grisham will have the authority to name five new regents to the seven-member body. She has yet to announce any of her picks, though.

The current regents last fall approved a plan to request from the Legislature this session an increase of $1.5 million for athletics for the coming fiscal year. That would take its budget from the $2.6 million it received this fiscal year to $4.1 million for the coming fiscal year.

But the regents did so with a clear message that they would not approve of lawmakers telling them how they could spend that money, only that it was needed for the remaining sports to cover expenses such as travel costs and athlete welfare measures.

Meanwhile, the men’s soccer season ended in the fall, and the spring season was canceled. Skiing is going on currently, and beach volleyball takes place in the spring.

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