Could UNM sports decision affect funding?
ALBUQUERQUE – Several state lawmakers stepped to the podium at the University of New Mexico Board of Regents meeting Aug. 17 with a common appeal: Please don't cut any Lobo sports until the Legislature convenes in January and can help explore alternatives.
Those pleas – which mirrored many other speakers at the meeting – were not enough.
The board took action anyway, heeding a recommendation from UNM President Garnett Stokes and Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez. Regents voted 7-0 to eliminate men's soccer, men's and women's skiing and women's beach volleyball next summer under a plan UNM says will help the athletic department achieve long-term financial stability and compliance with federal Title IX gender equity mandates.
But some are wondering if the move may haunt UNM when the Legislature makes its funding decisions during the 2019 session.
Jamie Koch, former UNM regent and onetime state lawmaker, said he did not expect legislators to "punish" UNM students, but they may not be as "gracious" to UNM as in the past.
"They wanted to have an opportunity to try to help the university; they asked if they'd postpone (a vote) to do it, and they didn't," Koch said. "I think that's created a problem."
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, was among the speakers at the meeting and said lawmakers felt dismissed by UNM. Regent President Rob Doughty cut off her comments when she reached the official three-minute limit.
Lundstrom may continue pushing for keeping the sports that were cut-- new estimates indicate the state could have $1.2 billion in new money next year – but indicated UNM could see intense scrutiny.
"I'd be very interested in restoring those four sports," Lundstrom told the Journal earlier this week. "But I'll be taking a very close look at everything else for UNM."
The state generally uses a formula to calculate most of the university's annual funding, but former New Mexico governor and recently retired New Mexico State University Chancellor Garrey Carruthers said the formula is not written into law, so legislators could exert influence. They also have tremendous discretion on funding for capital projects and special programs, including athletics.
Carruthers said he would not speculate how the Legislature would treat UNM in light of the recent sports decision, noting that a new governor and financial picture make it especially hard to predict.
But he said UNM has ample opportunity to mend possibly strained relationships and that the president should lead the way.
"There is time to do business (before the Legislature)," he said. "The leadership will have to step forward and make their case."
Don Tripp, retired state representative from Socorro and former House speaker, described UNM's decision as financially "prudent" and said he does not expect lawmakers to penalize the institution.
"If they're punitive towards UNM, who do they ultimately hurt? Their own constituents," he said.
Some lawmakers have been known to wield their funding authority like a weapon when they're frustrated, said James Jimenez, the state's former Department of Finance & Administration secretary.
Jimenez said he does not believe the Legislature would punish UNM as a whole over this issue, given the institution's scope and statewide importance, but he said UNM's decision to proceed against several lawmakers' wishes raises questions.
"I just don't think that was the wisest thing to do. ... It's not like we're talking about tens of millions of dollars (in cuts); they're fairly small. So is it really worth compromising your relationship with legislators over such a small amount of money?" said Jimenez, current executive director for New Mexico Voices for Children.
Legislators say they do not intend to retaliate against UNM, which could have a vastly different Board of Regents come January. Five of seven members' appointments will have expired by Dec. 31, allowing the next governor to make changes.
Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, also spoke at the regents meeting. He said lawmakers and UNM officials need to work more collaboratively.
New Mexico reduced spending on higher education during recent budget cuts, he said, but now the Legislature and UNM need to cooperate to assure the future of both education and athletics programs.
"Of course we'll work with them," he said.
State Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee, said the university's sports decision will have no bearing on his consideration of funding requests or other legislation affecting UNM. He's not there to "micromanage UNM," he said.
But Smith said he could speak only for himself.
"Whether it's at UNM or (New Mexico) State, invariably you have legislative members trying to dictate who the coach is going to be and all that stuff, and that's not my method of operation," Smith said.
Stokes and Nuñez said the plan to delete four sports would right-size the department, address perennial budget shortfalls and fix Title IX compliance issues.
New Mexico Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron had placed UNM under enhanced oversight and in March warned she could withhold some of UNM's state appropriations unless the institution took measures to financially stabilize athletics.
Stokes pushed for a summer decision so affected athletes could have a full year to plan for the impending cuts.
Prior to casting his vote to proceed with cuts, Regent Tom Clifford said that athletics would require "recurring" funds to sustain its current size. He also questioned whether lawmakers, even with new money, could commit to UNM sports given many other priorities and needs statewide.
Asked about potential retaliation by lawmakers, Stokes said: "I understand very much that there are supporters of some of the sports that we cut out there. What I hope to continue to do is engage people in conversations about what it is we need to do moving forward."
Journal Staff Writer Dan McKay contributed to this report.