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Higher education boss not consulted on veto

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s top higher education official was not involved in the governor’s decision to strike college and university funding from the budget, a move she said has created some challenges for the state’s financially strapped institutions.

Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron told a room full of Albuquerque business leaders Wednesday she prays Gov. Susana Martinez and the Legislature resolve their ongoing budget dispute soon.

She said “it’s challenging times, to be sure,” for the state’s public colleges and universities as they attempt to recruit faculty and enroll students without financial certainty about the fiscal year that starts July 1.

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“I know students right now who are registering for fall semester saying, ‘Wait, wait, wait, wait. Where’s the money again? Who’s paying (for) this? Does the state believe in higher education?'” Damron said.

The governor last week used her line-item veto power to eliminate $744 million in university funding as proposed in the Legislature-approved budget, a move expected to compel further negotiations with lawmakers over taxation and spending levels. Democratic legislators have denounced the veto as irresponsible and possibly illegal, but the Republican governor defended her action as a path to balancing the budget without raising taxes and has expressed confidence that higher education funding will be restored.

In a speech to Economic Forum of Albuquerque, Damron said she learned of the governor’s veto only hours before the general public and that it raised “a lot of red flags,” partly because the schools themselves – some of which rely on the state for more than 50 percent of their revenue – are supposed to complete and submit their individual budgets to the state by May 1.

State Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron

State Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron

Damron said she is advocating for full restoration of the Legislature-backed appropriation for public colleges and universities, but that amount – which aligned with the governor’s own higher education recommendation – still reflects a 1.1 percent decrease from the current fiscal year. And current year funding is already 7.5 percent less than 2016 levels, she said.

“The governor will not raise taxes; one part I do agree with the governor on is, in lean years, that is an opportunity to be efficient, and look at efficiencies and how can we do things differently than we’ve done in the past. That’s always an opportunity, and we should take that. We’ve taken it. … We’ve looked at how we can do more with less, and we are doing more with less in many areas. But now we’re getting to dangerous territory. Any more, we will be losing programs. You want to keep that enrollment going down like this? We’re on that path,” she said.

A spokesman for Martinez said lawmakers put the governor in a difficult position, but the removal of higher-education funding is only temporary.

Martinez “was forced to make tough decisions – and that included taking out higher education funding with the full expectation that lawmakers will not only restore it, but also take this crisis seriously and do what the people elected them to do,” spokesman Michael Lonergan said in a written statement Wednesday.

While budget questions abound, Damron said in Wednesday’s wide-ranging presentation that New Mexico higher education is actually in an “exciting place,” and noted her department’s success getting bills through the Legislature and its efforts to help students graduate.

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She cited a number of changes already made, such as using more performance-based models to dictate some state funding, as well as the current effort to create common course numbering across all New Mexico’s public higher education institutions. That makes it easier for students to transfer from one school to another without losing credits and momentum.

Damron teared up while describing the collaboration it took to build such a system, noting that faculty from around the state worked together within 79 subject-area teams to review courses and hone the curriculum. The goal is that an entry-level English class at Central New Mexico Community College, for example, covers most of the same ground as the same-numbered course at University of New Mexico.

The best ideas and practices prevailed, she said.

“The faculty came together and looked at each other’s courses, and when one wasn’t quite where it should be, organically in almost all (instances) … that faculty would say, ‘Wait – you’re doing that better than I am. Tell me how you do that. I want to add that to my course,'” she said. “It moves me to tears, because that’s the dedication our faculty have for our students.”

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