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Amendment introduced on regent appointments

A constitutional amendment under consideration by the Legislature would give New Mexico voters a role in recommending appointments of university regents to the governor.

Sponsors say the bill would improve the quality of candidates and the selection process for regents, appointed officials who run state-funded universities.

House Joint Resolution 7 was introduced by two Las Cruces Democrats – Rep. Jeff Steinborn and Sen. Bill Soules – with the backing of other lawmakers, including Republican Reps. Dennis Roch of Logan and Jason Harper of Rio Rancho.

Without explanation, a spokesman said in an email that the Department of Higher Education opposes the bill. Last week, Gov. Susana Martinez questioned whether the Constitution was being misused by a flurry of proposed amendments. If approved by the Legislature, a proposed amendment goes directly to the voters, providing a way to bypass a potential gubernatorial veto.

If the Legislature passes HJR7, it would appear on the ballot in November.

A similar proposal, in 2010, was supported by the faculty at the University of New Mexico, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and New Mexico State University. Its focus was on political appointments of then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat.

Then and now, regents in New Mexico do not need any special qualifications to be appointed. The gubernatorial choices are simply plum political assignments that often go to supporters of the sitting governor. Regents are not paid, but the positions usually carry quite a bit of respect.

Earlier this week, Steinborn said reform is long overdue. “These nominating committees would ensure that we pick our best and brightest to run our universities, and we should embrace this positive step forward.”

Soules called the bill “the type of education reform we can all embrace. We have nominating commissions for judges and interview committees for university presidents. We should follow the lead of the best universities in the country and establish nominating committees to help recommend top-notch regents.”

HJR7 calls for the establishment of bipartisan committees that would, in theory, recommend the best candidates to serve as regents. The committees – elected by the voters – would include members of the faculty, the student body and the general public where the university is located.

Committees would be established for each of the schools included in Article 12 of the Constitution: UNM, NMSU, New Mexico Highlands University, Western New Mexico, Eastern New Mexico, N.M. Tech, the New Mexico Military Institute, the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the New Mexico School for the Deaf, and Northern New Mexico.

In seeking support, sponsors cite a 2008 Michigan State University study that compared regent selection processes and school performance state by state. New Mexico ranked 49th of the 50 states in performance. The study found that three of the five top-performing states – Minnesota, Utah and Massachusetts – have specific requirements for those who would serve as regents. None of the bottom-five states, including New Mexico, requires any prior credentials or experience of candidates.

Schools in several of the top-performing states have “nominating councils” to make recommendations regarding potential regents.