Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The University of New Mexico Athletics Department would lose all of its state general-fund dollars unless it reinstates the men’s soccer team and three other sports this fall, under language in a massive budget bill moving through the House.
But the department stands to see a healthy bump in funding if it agrees to revive the teams, which are being eliminated by university leaders.
The sports requirement is part of a $7 billion state budget proposal that’s expected to be voted on by the full House in the next several days.
If approved, the budget would move to the Senate – where the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said Tuesday that he remains skeptical about “micromanaging” the university.
As it stands now, the House budget plan would boost the state’s general-fund appropriation for the UNM Athletics Department to $4.6 million next year, up from $2.6 million this year. That’s even more than the $4.1 million that UNM requested.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said the budget plan includes a spending increase for athletics programs at various state universities, not just the University of New Mexico.
She also said lawmakers will be more closely scrutinizing university athletics department spending on travel expenses, salaries and contracts.
“I think it’s important we get that accountability,” Lundstrom told reporters.
To receive the $4.6 million in state funding, however, UNM would have to reinstate the men’s and women’s ski teams, the women’s beach volleyball team and the men’s soccer team.
The university’s Board of Regents unanimously voted last year to cut the sports, based on a recommendation from UNM President Garnett Stokes and Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez, both in their first year at UNM.
The move came after years of financial struggles in the Athletics Department. University officials also said they had other reasons for cutting sports, such as coming into compliance with federal Title IX mandates for female participation.
“The contingencies imposed by the language in (the bill) put UNM Athletics in a critically precarious financial position, and seriously challenges our efforts to create a successful and efficient department capable of supporting our student-athletes’ well-being, training and overall success,” Nuñez said in a statement.
“The additional $2M that is allocated with the contingency to reinstate the cut sports does not address the actual request we have made for $1.5M for addressing current needs,” he said. “Reinstating the sports increases the need for more programmatic support, and considerable funding to remain Title IX compliant by investing in existing and additional women’s sports.”
In an interview with Journal reporters and editors earlier Tuesday, Stokes said that even if the state provides the funding to maintain those sports, there would be other “substantial, recurring” costs.
UNM would have to beef up the women’s beach volleyball program, including the creation of adequate facilities for the team, and add a new women’s sports team to UNM’s lineup to meet federal Title IX requirements.
“We have tremendous needs at UNM, very important priorities, Stokes said. “And it would be hard for me to make the case that reinstating a sport is a top priority for the University of New Mexico.”
Lundstrom and other Democratic lawmakers had asked the regents last year to reconsider cutting any sports. Lundstrom, in fact, last summer attended a UNM Board of Regents meeting, at which, she said, she was rudely cut off and dismissed, even after students offered to donate their allotted speaking time to her.
In any case, the state funding for UNM Athletics is just a small piece of the program’s financial picture. The university’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.
The House budget proposal is expected to be acted on this week. It has advanced so far along party lines, with Democrats in favor.
House Republicans have already expressed concern about meddling too much in university operations.
Smith said Tuesday that he hasn’t looked closely at the House proposal on athletics but that he’s skeptical about telling the university so precisely what it must do.
“I’ve expressed my opposition to micromanaging UNM long before we ever got into session,” he said Tuesday.
Athletics at New Mexico State University, whose teams also participate at the Division I level under the National Collegiate Athletic Association, would also receive an increase under the House proposal, though at a much smaller rate than UNM.
NMSU would get about $3.4 million next year, up from $3.1 million.
NMSU Athletic Director Mario Moccia said the majority of the increased support the Aggies had asked for from the state this session was tied directly to increased travel demands for all their sports, including football charter flights, meal money for road games and renting buses rather than having coaches drive teams to and from events in vans.
“I think anyone associated with our program over the last 4 years knows we don’t have frills and don’t have any ‘fat’ on the body,” Moccia said in an email. “… Our main goal is to make sure they are educated and compete in a safe and healthy environment and while we didn’t get all we were asking for we will continue to be frugal and make the most of what we have and plan on balancing our budget for the 9th time in 10 years.”
Journal sports writer Geoff Grammer contributed to this report.