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Ex-regent: Governor’s budget decision sends wrong message

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The decision by New Mexico’s governor to erase higher education funding from the state’s budget could scare away candidates from University of New Mexico’s presidential opening, according to the former head of UNM’s governing board.

Gov. Susana Martinez last week vetoed a proposed $744.8 million in state spending for public colleges and universities next fiscal year, eliminating – at least temporarily – appropriations vital to their existence. It was a move deemed largely symbolic amid a budget impasse with lawmakers, and Martinez herself stressed Monday the schools would have funding when the fiscal year started July 1.

But Jamie Koch, former president of UNM’s Board of Regents, said it appeared Martinez was “playing hardball with higher education, which shouldn’t be done.”

Koch said it sends the wrong message during a search for the school’s 22nd president. The UNM job is already tough, Koch said, with heavy turnover. Counting interims like current acting president Chaouki Abdallah, UNM is on its seventh leader since 1998. He said the governor’s “political” decision to veto funding, even if only temporarily, could turn off quality candidates.

“It means those people that are really qualified – they’re going to look and say, ‘Wait a minute. Do I want to go to New Mexico?'” said Koch, who retired in 2015 after 13 years as a regent.

Two current regents disagreed, saying they did not believe the governor’s veto would affect the search.

And the governor denied her decision to defund higher education was politically motivated, calling it a “thoughtful” way to balance the budget without making “a million cuts throughout the budget in ways that would really impact the rest of the operations of the state.”

She also noted that UNM had already extended its presidential search before the veto. The original timeline aimed for a spring hire, but the search committee announced last month it would wait until at least this fall.

“I know we’re going to fund higher education. There is no way we’re going to leave them without any funding next year. That’s impossible,” Martinez said in a news conference in Las Cruces.

Rob Doughty, regent president and chairman of the presidential search committee, said a forthcoming special session would resolve any budget questions and the veto would have no impact.

Jack Fortner, the board’s secretary/treasurer and its longest-serving member, said the defunding will not be permanent and it should therefore not hinder a presidential search. Plus, he noted, interested candidates would already know that UNM has funding challenges given the statewide budget crisis and steady drops in appropriations.

“Anyone who comes in is going to know they’re in a difficult situation,” he said.

Journal Staff Writer Lauren Villagran contributed to this report.


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