LAS CRUCES — In the weeks leading up to the 2010 election, headlines across this state, and especially in Albuquerque, focused on a controversial $1.46 million buyout of former University of New Mexico football coach Mike Locksley.
The timing could not have been worse for proponents of a general obligation bond on the ballot that November that asked voters to approve $155 million in capital spending for higher education. That bond question was defeated by just 1,163 votes.
"Any bad publicity can hurt passage of the GO bond," said Gerald Burke, a retired vice president of administration and former legislative liaison officer for New Mexico State University.
Burke is the current chairman of a committee trying to garner support for a similar GO bond this year that asks New Mexicans to approve $119 million for higher education and special school capital improvements and acquisitions.
This time around, voters are reading news stories about former NMSU president Barbara Couture receiving a $453,092 "golden parachute" as part of her Oct. 1 separation agreement with the university's Board of Regents.
Couture's payout — which the regents say is fair and equitable — has drawn a backlash from some state lawmakers vowing to push for legislation to end golden parachutes paid for with tax funds.
"This turns off some of us legislators, too," said State Rep.
However, state Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said the two issues are completely separate.
"The changes taking place in the NMSU administration have nothing to do with the need for the best possible facilities and resources to offer both our future graduates, and the faculty we need to attract and keep," Cervantes said. "The voters' support for the statewide bonds this election will mean long-overdue classrooms for our incoming students, and the opportunity to create needed construction jobs locally."
Still, some people weighed in on a recent Sun-News' Facebook discussion saying they would not vote for the bond given Couture's payment.
"I won't vote for it. Clearly the university cannot look (to) manage the money they already have," Amy Rohr said.
"As long as NMSU can easily find $453,000 sitting around to pay off a president being fired, they don't deserve my vote to give them even more taxpayer money to mismanage," Jim Baldwin wrote.
That line of thinking is short-sighted, said Burke, the chairman of the executive committee for the 2012 GO Bond for Education Committee.
"I think citizens need to take a longer-range viewpoint of this, and not look at one incident and blow it out of proportion," he said.
"The fact is in New Mexico, there is over $4 billion worth of (higher education) facilities, and the primary source of revenue to modernize and upkeep these facilities is the GO bond."
NMSU Regent Chairman Mike Cheney said a defeat for the GO bonds would mean a "diminished environment" for students and faculty.
"My hope is that people will understand that this is a statewide project. It's something very important for infrastructure of the higher education system," said Cheney, who acknowledged the "unfortunate" timing of Couture's settlement just five weeks before the election.
"Timing is not always within our control. It's unfortunate that (the bond) is something someone could misconstrue as a negative. I don't view it as a negative," Cheney said.
Paul Gessing, president of the government watchdog group, the Rio Grande Foundation, said bond measures, even those earmarked for capital projects, can still elicit visceral reactions from taxpayers when they learn about questionable government spending.
"People don't get to vote on the salaries of university presidents and football coaches. So where do they get to vote? On bond measures, so they turn into referendums into whether we think this school is doing well or not," Gessing said.
General obligation bonds come before New Mexico voters every two years. Supporters say they are a proven and accepted method of funding brick-and-mortar projects throughout the state.
There are three bond issues before the voters in 2012; one proposing $10.3 million for senior citizen facility improvements and construction projects, and one for $9.8 million and the big one for higher education.
GO Bond B - the library bond - would direct $519,881 for the NMSU library system.
Meanwhile, GO Bond C would authorize $19 million in spending to renovate Hardman and Jacob halls, as well as an additional $2 million for other infrastructure renovation projects on the NMSU Las Cruces campus. The university's campuses in Grants, Carlsbad and Alamogordo would each receive $1 million for renovation projects.
Burke said those funds could only be used for renovations.
"That money has to be spent on renovating Hardman and Jacobs. It cannot be diverted to any other purpose," he said, adding that the two halls are in dire need of upgrades.
"I taught at Hardman in the '70s, when it was a new building, and it was a lousy place to teach then," Burke said.
The 2010 general obligation bond for higher education upgrades was defeated, 260,581 to 259,418; a margin of .02 percentage points. In Dona Ana County, the bond question was defeated by 526 votes; 2,253 to 1,727.
"I believe there was a perception among some people that that money would be available for faculty salaries and other purposes, but it absolutely is not," Burke said.
Even if bond money is only used to construct and renovate buildings, Gessing said those facilities will eventually require more staff and faculty funded by the taxpayers.
"And that money comes out of the general fund at some point," Gessing said.
Clearly a need
Dr. Neil Harvey, an NMSU political science professor and head of the university's Department of Government, said he hopes voters see the need to renovate the campus buildings.
"Jacobs Hall and Hardman Hall are in need of renovation, no matter who is in the administrative positions," Harvey said. "And it's for the students' benefit. Those places were built 50, 60 years ago. There's clearly a need. I don't think it would be money misspent."
However, given the publicity surrounding Couture's payout, voters may harbor doubts about the university's ability to spend money in a prudent fashion.
"It certainly can't help the case, in terms of trying to get taxpayers to approve this kind of bond measure, with this kind of news coming out," Gessing said. "What were the regents thinking in signing on to this kind of thing? It's definitely another black eye on higher education in the state of New Mexico."
Cheney said the settlement with Couture allows the university to move forward.
"I would like for us to have a president for many, many years for continuity's sake, but in today's mobile society, people move. They get experience where they can and move on, but we would like to somebody stay on for a long period of time," Cheney said.
Harvey added that the timing "isn't the best."
"The committee trying to get support for the bond has its work cut out," he said. "They will have to make the case even more clearly as to why this should be supported."
The fact that the regents have declined to comment specifically about how the $453,092 was determined during the private negotiations with Couture may aggravate voters' suspicions.
"I think the university has to be cognizant of that, and take into account how something like this could have a negative impact on how voters see the bond issue," Harvey said.
"There being little concrete information about the way in which the decisions have been made regarding the president's leaving, that has made it difficult for people to comment on any specifics. It all seems unclear."
Burke's committee is emphasizing the potential economic benefits of approving the bonds: up to 1,200 jobs, economic development and no tax increases to pay for the bonds.
"I hope people keep in mind that we have to construct and modernize the facilities in this state," he said.
Brian Fraga can be reached at (575) 541-5462; Follow him on Twitter @bfraga