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The Next Higher-Ed Funding Battle to Watch May Be in New Mexico …

It’s rare for a governor to remove all higher-education funding from a state budget, but that’s exactly what happened in New Mexico. Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, earlier this month vetoed nearly $745 million for New Mexico’s public colleges and universities, shocking the state’s academic leaders.

The move has also elicited surprise from observers nationally, but it’s unlikely to be final. Ms. Martinez expects the situation to be resolved soon, according to a spokesman for the governor, Michael Lonergan.

“The governor met just a few days ago with legislative leadership, and she’s optimistic they can work together to solve the budget crisis,” he wrote in an email. “We hope to have a deal soon, and when we do the governor will call a special session that will, among other things, restore funding for our colleges and universities.”

That statement echoes previous remarks by Ms. Martinez, that she would approve funding for the universities and colleges so long as lawmakers bring her a budget that doesn’t involve a tax increase.

But the action carries echoes of a continuing budget impasse in Illinois that has left public colleges without permanent funding from their state for just under 22 months. Lawmakers there have approved several rounds of emergency funding — most recently, $17 million to help three colleges through the year.

But New Mexico’s higher-education system is especially beleaguered — and its most prominent public colleges may feel pain that the top Illinois institutions have not. The system’s current budget is 7.5 percent smaller than the previous fiscal year’s. Next year’s budget, if restored to the pre-veto level proposed by legislators, would be about 1 percent less than the current budget, according to The Albuquerque Journal.

A spokesman for New Mexico State University, Justin Bannister, said that university is currently building a budget based on the pre-veto amounts. He added the university needs Ms. Martinez and the State Legislature to come to an agreement. “We’re hopeful that will happen before July 1,” Mr. Bannister said.

Craig White, provost at the University of New Mexico, said that institution’s budget planning process is currently on hold. But Mr. White said no one is planning on zero state funding.

“That’s not really what we’re expecting,” he said, adding that the university had planned on a tighter budget, compared to the previous year.

“It’s a continuation of that trend of things getting tighter and tighter,” Mr. White said.

The leaders of the state’s four-year universities wrote in a recent letter to Ms. Martinez that they feared students might flee the state to find cheaper education and that faculty members could be eyeing more stable employment at other institutions. State funding covers about 50 to 60 percent of their instruction and general operations budgets, according to the letter.

“The message the veto sent to our 133,505 registered students and their families, while unintended, leaves them confused and wondering whether they should enroll in a New Mexico college or whether they’ll be able to finish their degree and graduate,” the presidents wrote.

They also said that without state funding, tuition, which is $6,950 at the state’s flagship, could almost triple to cover the lost revenue.

An Unflattering Spotlight

The budget situation in New Mexico has drawn national attention that could make any educator considering working in the state balk: “New Mexico Gov. Martinez vetoes higher education funding. All of it,” read a recent headline in The Washington Post.

As the headlines unfold, the state’s flagship institution, the University of New Mexico, is in the middle of its search for its next president. Its prior leader, Robert G. Frank, negotiated an early exit from that office amid a dispute with the board. That conflict too bore plenty of negative headlines. The university is also drawing criticism for firing its basketball coach, Craig Neal, at a cost of $1 million to the institution.

Meanwhile, at the state’s second-largest university, the president of New Mexico State University, Garrey Carruthers is in the middle of a restructuring that has already included layoffs and could result in the combination or culling of some programs.

For instance, the university’s College of Education will morph its five divisions into three. Other changes drill down to the smallest details, such as the way office supplies are ordered.

Smaller institutions have suffered as well. In the northwestern portion of the state, San Juan Community College had to cancel cellphone plans, restrict travel, and even lay people off.

And at public colleges and universities across the state, enrollment has dropped, from roughly 153,167 in the fall of 2011 to the current enrollment of about 133,505, which of course means a decline in tuition dollars.

The leaders of the four-year institutions also echoed a need for a fast decision in their letter to the governor. “Action needs to be taken quickly,” they wrote. “It is our hope that the executive and the Legislature will work expeditiously to resolve their differences and allow higher education to continue its role in improving New Mexico and its work force for future generations.”

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at

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