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Editorial: If we forgive debt, let’s get real on athletics funding

There are few who can match the credentials of Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, when it comes to responsible government finances and being a good steward of public funds.

When the longtime chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee talks about money matters, people tend to take notice. His statement last week that a provision in the proposed state budget awaiting action by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham essentially cancels millions of dollars of debt the athletics departments at the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University owe their respective universities is no exception.

The budget language prohibits the schools from using state money – which includes money appropriated by the Legislature and other state money – to pay back the deficits. Those totals are about $4.4 million at UNM and $3 million at NMSU.

The fact of the matter is, if the two universities want to be competitive at the Division I level, this is probably a nod to reality. More importantly, it should lead to an honest discussion about how the departments are funded. Indeed, over the years athletics at both schools overestimated revenue from things like football ticket sales, and so the universities paid the bills.

Athletics departments at both schools have made some headway reducing the accumulated debt – but at what cost to programs, attendance and revenue? For what it’s worth, Smith says the accumulated deficits were brought about by “accounting problems.”

Whether you agree with that or not, lawmakers and regents need to look at the levels of funding for athletics at UNM and NMSU and how they match up with competitors. At UNM, state money (including student fees) accounts for about 32% of athletics funding, according to Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez. He says the Mountain West Conference average is about 46%, while some conferences, like the MAC and Mid-American, are closer to 60%.

So if the schools are to live within their means, that probably means more state resources.

UNM’s athletics budget has essentially been flat for several years, with student fee funding falling along with an enrollment decline. At the same time, tuition and fees for scholarships have gone up along with things like travel costs and insurance.

The money problems have been compounded by Lobo football seasons of 3-9, 3-9 and 2-10 with commensurate sparse attendance. That led to the departure of Coach Bob Davie and a buyout of around $850,000, exacerbating the money problem. Meanwhile, this year’s Lobo basketball teams are struggling. What happens on the field or court, so to speak, has an impact on finances.

As for the Aggies, their football team is coming off a 2-10 season.

While Smith groused about the Lobos and Aggies playing big-money road games to make ends meet, that’s not going to stop anytime soon. The Lobos already have games at LSU, Oklahoma, Auburn and Texas A&M (twice) on the schedule.

It’s worth noting it was the Higher Education Department under then-Gov. Susana Martinez that demanded a repayment plan for those accumulated deficits. If Smith is correct the proposed budget essentially cancels that, it will be interesting to see if HED under Lujan Grisham takes the same view.

An optimist would believe new Lobo football coach Danny Gonzales, a hometown kid who has returned to his roots and brought along Lobo icon Rocky Long, will reverse the football fortunes. But even an optimist knows it will take time.

And a realist knows that if we really want UNM and NMSU to compete at D-I, it’s also going to take resources.

If we do, then Smith’s budget language would be a good starting point – followed by a blueprint that would hold the Lobos’ and Aggies’ feet to the fire of financial accountability but still give them a realistic chance of success.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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