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NM universities, colleges still in budget limbo

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In a normal year, New Mexico’s public colleges and universities would have to submit budgets to the state’s Higher Education Department by May 1.

But this is not a normal year.

With their state funding still not assured following Gov. Susana Martinez’s veto of $745 million in higher education spending included in a Legislature-approved budget bill, the schools will get more time to craft their individual spending plans.

But just how much more time remains unknown.

Barbara Damron, secretary for the Higher Education Department, told university administrators in an April 17 letter her agency had suspended the May 1 deadline “until further notice” and would issue further instruction “as soon as the current situation with the budget is resolved.” Her letter does not specifically cite the veto, but notes that “the general fund budget for higher education has not as yet been finalized.”

The Governor’s Office has called the veto a temporary measure to balance the budget without Legislature-approved tax increases and Martinez said at a news conference earlier this month that higher education funding would get restored during a special session.

But she hasn’t yet called a special session and the budget battle with the Legislature continues to rage, with lawmakers last week seeking the New Mexico Supreme Court’s intervention. The lawmakers challenge that her vetoes – which also eliminated funding for legislative agencies – violate the state Constitution, a charge her office disputes.

The Higher Education Department is required to review and approve the schools’ budgets prior to June 1 submission to the Department of Finance and Administration.

A spokeswoman for the department said in an email “our department and the Governor are hopeful that this situation will be fully resolved soon.”

Given the scope of the process, most schools already have started budget planning, tentatively assuming the appropriation outlined in the Legislature-approved budget, according to Marc Saavedra, executive director of the Council of University Presidents. That would mean around a 1 percent cut.

University of New Mexico, the state’s largest university, postponed its annual budget summit – originally scheduled for April 7 – and has not yet set tuition rates for the 2017-18 year. But the school has “prepared recommendations reflecting various scenarios for our Regents to consider once (funding) comes through,” spokeswoman Cinnamon Blair said in an email.

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