New Mexico State University Chancellor Garrey Carruthers made a plea to lawmakers on Wednesday to resolve their budget standoff with Gov. Susana Martinez and provide stability to the state’s colleges and universities.
“It’s time now to put higher education in the proper perspective as the driving force for improvement in the State of New Mexico,” Carruthers told members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee on the opening day of the Legislature’s special session.
“We need a quick fix,” he said.
The session is aimed at resolving a budget dispute that has left the state’s colleges and universities in limbo as the new fiscal year approaches on July 1. Martinez vetoed in March all funding for higher education and the Legislature in addition to a bill that would have raised various taxes to fund the state budget.
The House and Senate rejected an attempt to override Martinez’s budget vetoes in the opening moments of the session on Wednesday.
The vetoes included about $190 million in funding for NMSU. “If we were not to receive that $190 million, it would essentially bankrupt the university, probably within 4-5 months,” Carruthers told members of the committee.
Carruthers testified that since the 2016 fiscal year, higher education — which accounts for about 13 percent of money in the state’s general fund — had absorbed 44 percent of cuts to the general fund. NMSU has already cut $32 million — including 727 jobs — from its budget in recent years.
Carruthers, who was joined at the committee meeting by other state college and university leaders, detailed the “collateral damage” the veto has caused at NMSU:
- Recruitment and retention of students has taken a hit, Carruthers said. More than 5 percent of existing students — 350-400 people — haven’t yet registered for classes in the fall. “There’s an uneasiness and an apprehension among these students,” Carruthers said.
- Faculty and staff retention and recruitment has also been impacted. Carruthers said 2-3 job offers were rejected because of the uncertainty, and other universities are working to “poach” existing NMSU employees at an unprecedented rate. “To take care of our students at our great universities and colleges we have to have a good faculty and staff,” he said.
- The university’s bond ratings are in limbo, Carruthers said. NMSU is in the process of renewing its rating with two companies. It also has an $85 million bond approved but on hold, he said, because “the company that we employ to rate those bonds will not rate those bonds until they find out what happens in the session and what’s going to happen going forward.”
- Academic program accreditations may also be in jeopardy, Carruthers said. “We have accrediting agencies that are on hold… until they see what we’re able to do here in the state,” he told the committee.
- The university is facing possible cash-flow problems, Carruthers said. He doesn’t want to have to tap into NMSU’s reserves because it’s difficult to replenish them later.
- Universities also engage in public-private partnerships, but the uncertainty puts that in limbo, according to Carruthers. “When we have these kinds of events there is a skittishness on the part of the private sector, a worry on their own part, as to whether we’re going to solve our problems in the State of New Mexico,” he said.
In addition, said Carruthers, a Republican and former New Mexico governor, the situation has created an “image” problem for the state’s efforts to attract industry. “When we have these difficulties, it plays into the hands of other states that want to compete with us,” Carruthers said.
There’s no apparent budget fix yet. How long the Legislature will remain in session isn’t clear. Carruthers said the governor and Legislature need to learn “to get along together” — not just to resolve the current standoff, but long-term.
“We need stability in higher education,” he told the committee. “… It cannot be a constant battle every year to determine where we’re going to take these universities.”
“If in fact we’re not going to properly fund higher education, that sends a message to students and taxpayers and parents that it’s not important,” Carruthers warned, while also thanking lawmakers for “trying to be expeditious about this.”
State-level stability is especially important, Carruthers told state lawmakers, considering shifting federal policy — including President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and rhetoric, which he said have impacted NMSU’s efforts to recruit, retain and educate students.
“I can tell you that our international student enrollment will be down,” Carruthers told the committee.