KUNM

Lawsuits Planned For Governor's Higher Education Funding Veto

Apr 20, 2017

Governor Susana Martinez this week promised that higher education will get its funding back in a special session she’ll call soon. That’s after university leaders called on her to restore nearly $750 million dollars she vetoed from next year’s proposed state budget. 

Late April is finals time at the University of New Mexico, which means students have more pressing things to worry about than a state budget crisis.

I talked to more than a dozen UNM students on campus this week to see what they think about state funding being set to zero out on July 1. David Rodriguez, a sophomore from Rio Rancho, was the only one who’d heard about it.

"College is expensive enough, so I'd rather it stay where it’s at, not go up," said Rodriguez, who relies partially on a lottery scholarship for his tuition. "I work at Chik-Fil-A, so I don't make that much money. So it definitely would affect me."

Down in Las Cruces, Mathew Bose, president of the Associated Students of New Mexico State University, said there’s been confusion among his peers.  

“A lot of students think that after that happened, the school was going to shut down the next day," says Bose. "We're just trying to reassure students this thing’s going to get resolved, it's just going to take some time.”

NMSU has already seen layoffs as the university goes through a restructuring to deal with round after round of budget cuts. 

Governor Martinez, meanwhile, has been traveling the state and sending somewhat mixed messages about her higher education veto. Her main message is that lawmakers sent her $350 million in new taxes and fees she couldn’t approve. We tried to talk to the governor for this story but couldn’t get an interview. But Martinez told the Roswell Daily Record last week that enrollment was way down without adjusting the budget. She implied higher education may not need all that money.

“Unfortunately, throughout the state we have a decrease in enrollment by 30 percent," said Martinez. "So there just needs to be a closer look, but I have no doubt there will be funding for higher education.”

Marc Saavedra, executive director of the Council of University Presidents, said, to the contrary, statewide enrollment last year was slightly up from 2008 numbers, while funding is down.

“There are 400 more students than there were 10 years ago, so our response is, but our funding is $50 million dollars less than it was ten years ago," said Saavedra.

The university presidents in a statement this week urged the governor to restore funding at the level proposed by lawmakers to avoid dramatic tuition increases and layoffs.

“We are also concerned with the timing," said Saavedra, "in terms of instability that it shows." Normally, colleges and universities are required to send their budget plans to the state by May 1, 2017. Saavedra says that deadline has now been suspended until further notice. 

The Council of University Presidents is also worried about accreditation, Saavedra says, which makes a school legitimate in the eyes of the federal government and allows students to get financial aid, among other things. The Higher Learning Commission, the regional body that accredits New Mexico schools, confirmed in a statement that it could implement sanctions if schools don’t have the “resources necessary to provide quality higher education.”

The Taos News posted video of an event in Taos Tuesday where Martinez told reporters she expected to call a special session “in the next few days to a week and a half or so.” That came as a surprise to Democratic Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, who said in an interview Wednesday that he hadn’t heard any specific timeline from the governor. Nor has he heard any details on a compromise.

KUNM reached out to several Republican lawmakers to get their take on the budget negotiations, but did not get any response.

Egolf said the governor’s vetos total more than $2 billion. “This has never happened anywhere in the United States, in its entire history," he said. "Not since 1789 has an executive attempted to abolish constitutionally created institutions like UNM with a line item veto.”

New Mexico's higher education veto has already prompted comparisons to Illinois, where two years without a permanent state budget has taken a serious toll on public universities. This month, one Illinois university had its credit rating downgraded after it cancelled three days of classes, and Moody’s Investors Service says six more public universities are at risk. 

Egolf said it’s one thing to veto an entire budget, which causes appropriations to revert to the previous year’s budget. What’s extraordinary about New Mexico's current standoff, he said, is that the governor signed a new budget with gaping holes in it.

“That will take effect July 1 without any funding for the legislature and higher education and all the other things she line item vetoed," explained Egolf. "That’s what makes this unprecedented, is we don’t have a previous budget to fall back on, for the universities to be funded at the previous year's level. They have nothing at all.”

The Legislative Council voted to take legal action against the governor’s vetos, which they believe are unconstitutional. Egolf said they’ll file lawsuits with the state Supreme Court before lawmakers even get to a special session.  

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The People, Power and Democracy project examines ethics, transparency and accountability in state government. The project is funded by the Thornburg Foundation and by contributions from KUNM listeners.