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Senator: Budget measure would cancel $4.4M debt for Lobos

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, center, with LFC Director David Abbey, left, presents the state’s spending bill to Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, right, (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A provision embedded in the 234-page budget bill that state lawmakers passed this week could give Lobos a lot to howl about.

State Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said Friday that the state budget as passed essentially cancels the millions of dollars of debt that the athletics departments at the state’s two Division I colleges owe their respective universities for years of overspending.

The language in the budget prohibits the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University from using any state money – which includes money appropriated from the Legislature as well as any other state money that ends up in the athletics departments’ coffers – to pay back the accumulated deficits.

At UNM, that totals a nearly $4.4 million debt the Athletics Department has run up with the main campus through years of overspending.

At NMSU, the debt is $3 million.

The budget hasn’t been approved by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Smith said he pushed for the language in the budget because he’s tired of how the two schools have been dealing with their financially struggling athletics departments, which he argues are underfunded compared with peers in their conferences.

“That language is strictly saying, ‘Hey, UNM main campus and Athletic Department, it’s still taxpayer money and you are just shifting that.’ And every year, UNM or State, if they can’t quite make the payments, they advertise (the deficit reduction plan is going to last) for a longer period,” Smith said in an interview Friday. “What that language (in this year’s budget) does, I’m hoping, is just cancel that debt. There was no additional money from the state of New Mexico.”

In UNM’s case, the Athletics Department had accumulated a $4.7 million deficit by the end of fiscal year 2017, having missed budget eight times in 10 years.

Regents two years ago approved a plan to have the department pay back the university over a period of 10 years, and the Athletics Department had started to erase the debt.

Smith said those deficits were caused by accounting problems at the universities. A main reason for the deficits has been a practice of overestimating revenues from ticket sales and other sources, which expenses then exceed.

Smith said he hopes leadership at the universities will find a better way to keep athletics department budgets and spending in line.

And he again expressed displeasure with the universities’ scheduling football games against top-tier opponents that come with big payouts, little chance of winning and a good chance of players getting hurt.

The past season, the Aggies lost to Alabama 62-10 and the Lobos lost to Notre Dame 66-14, for example, but each game earned the New Mexico schools a significant paycheck.

“I’m sick and tired of both universities having to take money games. We’re not competitive, and we’re getting crushed, but they’ve got to play those games to get enough money for their athletics departments,” Smith said.

UNM Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez said the university was analyzing how the bill would affect the department.

“I cannot speak about the proposal until we understand what this means and how it will work,” he said late Friday.

UNM Board of Regents President Doug Brown also said he hadn’t heard of the attempt to forgive the debts.

“I don’t know the details,” he said. But “there’s four or five units within the university with deficits.”

The Governor’s Office couldn’t be reached for comment late Friday.

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