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ENMU discusses ‘unified’ budget requests

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Hearing next week will consider funding for public colleges, universities

Eastern New Mexico University is among the New Mexico public colleges hoping that increased 2020 legislative funding for their operational budgets will help make up for prior year cuts and reduce the need for tuition increases.

ENMU Chancellor Jeff Elwell (Submitted Photo)

“For the first time ever, I believe, all three advocacy organizations — for the branch campuses, for the independent two-year schools and for the four-year schools — sent a joint letter pushing the exact same scenario in terms of funding — the areas, the percentage — so that we have one unified voice at the hearing,” said Dr. Jeff Elwell, chancellor of Eastern New Mexico University.

The New Mexico Higher Education Department administrators and some higher education representatives are due to meet with the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee at the Capitol in Santa Fe on Dec. 11 to discuss the budget requests.

In an Oct. 21 letter sent to New Mexico Secretary of Higher Education Kate O’Neill by the New Mexico Council of University Presidents, the New Mexico Association of Community Colleges and the New Mexico Independent Community Colleges requested spending increases in five different areas, including an 8% increase in instructional and general funds and a 5% increase in employee compensation.

According to Marc Saavedra, executive director of the Council of University Presidents, those requests amount to about $86 million, $48 million for the instructional and general funds and about $38 million for the increased pay.

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He said the groups are asking for about 13% of the anticipated state budget, as projected by the Legislative Finance Committee. As of the end of August, the Finance Committee anticipated about $7.85 billion in revenue available.

Other funding requests by the higher education associations included $50 million for technology and equipment upgrades and $50 million for building replacements and renewals that are separate from any capital outlay or general obligation bond funding that would be provided. Increased funding also has been sought for educator preparation degree programs and dual credit courses, which allow public high school students to take college courses for free and earn both college and high school credits.

The groups also asked for changes in how employee compensation increases are funded so that institutions are not required to use their own funds to supplement the state-mandated increases, as was the case in 2019.

According to the associations’ letter, the increased funding would represent an investment in higher education as a way to help businesses and individuals diversify the economy, create jobs and develop a “culture of higher education” in the state.

The letter also states that higher education took a large share of the state budget cuts during the economic downturn of 2008 to 2017. The reductions of about $100 million for higher education institutions represented about 44% of the state budget cuts, the letter indicates. Those reductions occurred even as the number of students enrolled and the number of degrees awarded grew, the groups stated.

“Higher education institutions in New Mexico have experienced deep cuts during the decade,” said Carmen Lopez-Wilson, Higher Education deputy secretary. “Now we need to move forward by reinvesting and rebuilding the structures of the institution so that we can meet the needs of students.”

She said the Higher Education Department (HED) wants to rebuild by striking a balance between investing directly in colleges and universities, as well as providing scholarships to students.

Saavedra confirmed the request represented the first time the groups forwarded a single recommendation.

“That is because of the leadership of the secretary. A joint letter has never been done before,” he said. “She met with us right after the last (legislative) session and that was one of the No. 1 initiatives and requests — let’s get unified before the next session.”

While the HED has responded well to the joint request, according to Elwell and Saavedra, Secretary O’Neill has made an initial presentation to the Finance Committee suggesting different amounts.

Her total request of close to $1 billion includes $22 million in capital outlay and $154.8 million for general obligation bond funding.

In terms of operational funding, she has recommended a 6% instructional and general fund increase (to about $660.7 million), with 1.5% of that amount to be used to reward those schools that have performed well according to several criteria. The HED recommendation also asks for a 3% employee compensation increase (to $27 million), $25 million for technology and upgrades, $25 million for building replacements or improvements, $5 million for teacher preparation programs and $5 million for dual credit programs.

It also includes $35 million to expand the Opportunity Scholarship to eliminate tuition and fees for most New Mexico students attending state public institutions, an idea forwarded by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Elwell said the dual credit money would represent a 250% increase for the ENMU system, or about $700,000.

In past years, the state’s higher education officials said the burden for funding the programs had shifted unexpectedly to colleges instead of public high schools as college faculty took over teaching the courses, often in their facilities, due to a lack of high school educators with required credentials.

Before legislators vote on budget decisions and the governor signs or vetoes them, the Legislative Finance Committee is expected to make its own budget recommendations for higher education.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.