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Veto surprises, concerns universities

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico universities were already bracing for funding cuts, but not like this.

Gov. Susana Martinez on Friday used her line-item veto power to remove all state funding for New Mexico colleges and universities from a Legislature-approved fiscal year 2018 spending package.

Neither side in the ongoing state budget debate indicated Friday that universities would actually enter the next fiscal year without state funding.

Michael Lonergan, spokesman for the Republican governor, expressed optimism Friday that a special session would yield a new budget plan that would not raise taxes – a major sticking point for Martinez – but still fund higher education.

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Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup and chairwoman of the House Appropriations & Finance Committee, suggested Democratic leadership could fight Martinez’s veto in court on the grounds that the eliminating state funding to the schools would render them unable to function.

The governor’s action further darkened an already cloudy budget process for the state’s higher education institutions. It also sparked fear that the state’s universities could face even deeper cuts than projected.

State funding is critical to basic operations – at University of New Mexico, for example, it currently accounts for 58 percent of the school’s “instruction and general” budget.

“Like other public higher education institutions, UNM depends on the State’s contribution to deliver quality education,” UNM Acting President Chaouki Abdallah said in an emailed statement Friday. “At this juncture, UNM hopes the Governor and the legislature will provide a higher education budget as soon as possible so we can continue to serve New Mexicans.”

Marc Saavedra of the Council of University Presidents, an association representing New Mexico’s universities, called the governor’s Friday move surprising and concerning.

“We don’t want to get caught in the politics,” he said.

New Mexico universities, which are obligated to submit their budgets to the state by May 1, had already begun crafting their fiscal year 2018 budgets despite uncertainty about how much state money would flow their way. The governor and Legislature never agreed on a budget, but Saavedra said most schools worked with the Legislature-approved spending plan that called for a 1.1 percent cut to college and university appropriations.

New Mexico State University spokesman Justin Bannister said NMSU was planning around the proposed 1.1 percent budget reduction but was now seeking guidance from the state’s Higher Education Department about what modifications to make. But he added, “I’m not sure really anybody knows the answer to that question.”

UNM had assumed a 2 percent cut from the current year’s levels, and Abdallah said planning would continue “under various budget reductions scenarios.”

Saavedra said universities are already struggling amid 2016 and 2017 cuts and worries that more budget tinkering during the special session could increase this year’s proposed 1.1 percent dip.

“We want to work with the governor; we want to work with the Legislature – we do,” he said. “But we’re at a point now where we’re saying, ‘This is enough. We can’t be cut any further.’ ”

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