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UNM leaders face tough questions over sports cuts

UNM regents voted last year to eliminate the university’s men’s and women’s skiing teams, beach volleyball and men’s soccer programs. (Albuquerque Journal photos)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – University of New Mexico leaders faced pointed questions from members of a key House budget-writing committee on Saturday, as the debate over eliminating men’s soccer and three other UNM sports shifted to the state Capitol.

During a nearly five-hour hearing at the Roundhouse, some lawmakers offered blunt critiques of UNM’s decision-making process.

“Why are we punishing the programs that have actually been successful?” asked Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, who described the UNM football program as a “money pit” that should have had its budget more closely scrutinized.

In response, UNM President Garnett Stokes and Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez said the Lobo football team generates a hefty share of the UNM Athletics Department budget and said membership in the Mountain West Conference is contingent on fielding teams in football and several other sports.

“From a membership in the Mountain West Conference (perspective), football was never going to be part of cutting our budget,” said Stokes, who said more than 85 percent of the revenue the school gets from the conference comes from football.

The debate came as lawmakers are considering a bill 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.

The legislation, which was not voted on Saturday, would also require UNM to provide a yearly report to lawmakers about the Athletics Department’s travel expenses, salaries and contracts.

House Appropriations and Finance Committee Chairwoman Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said after Saturday’s hearing the measure will likely not be voted upon until the panel moves forward with a state budget bill for the coming fiscal year.

Before that happens, the bill will likely be amended to include appropriations and budget language for other New Mexico universities, she said.

UNM officials have made it clear they did not ask for the bill and have not requested state money to reinstate the sports.

A university analysis of the legislation found it would create a $4 million recurring budget deficit for UNM by 2022. And that figure does not include possible costs to comply with federal gender requirements for university athletic programs.

The university has cited a May 2018 report that it was not Title IX compliant – along with a multimillion-dollar deficit – as the driving force behind the decision to eliminate sports.

However, UNM’s Athletics Department has already asked for more than $4.1 million in state funding for the coming fiscal year – a 57 percent increase over its current $2.6 million in state dollars.

That funding increase would go toward team travel and recruiting, facilities improvements and more, Stokes said.

In addition to state dollars, UNM’s total athletics budget of $32.9 million is also funded by ticket sales, student fees and fundraising efforts, according to Legislative Finance Committee data.

During Saturday’s hearing, Lundstrom questioned UNM leaders about why they rebuffed her attempts to participate in the sports debate before the university’s Board of Regents took a final vote.

“I am (House) appropriations chairwoman, for goodness sake,” she said. “If it’s about needing resources, wouldn’t I be the appropriate one to work with?”

Stokes responded by saying she would have felt uncomfortable prioritizing the amount of funding it would take to maintain the sports, given other university budget constraints.

“I couldn’t work this deal out with you without truly alienating” faculty members, Stokes said.

Following the hearing, Lundstrom told the Journal there is a lack of trust among many legislators when it comes to UNM athletics funding.

She and other lawmakers also cited recent charges of fraud, money laundering and more that were filed against former UNM Athletics Director Paul Krebs by the Attorney General’s Office in connection with a golf junket to Scotland.

The criminal charges are a “black eye” for UNM, said Lundstrom, who added: “There’s not transparency. I don’t know if it’s intentional or if it’s just the way the information is presented.”

Team members of the UNM soccer and skiing programs also attended Saturday’s hearing, with some of them waiting hours to testify.

In other Roundhouse action Saturday, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee voted 6-2 to approve a proposal to take more money from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund for home visiting and other early childhood programs.

That measure, House Joint Resolution 1, now advances to the full House for consideration.

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