Republicans line up against it, knowing governor would lose power
A partisan fight appears to be building over a bill to elect nearly half the regents of UNM and New Mexico State University in nonpartisan elections.
The House Education Committee kept the bill alive Friday on a 7-5 vote, but every Republican opposed it. Democrats supported it enthusiastically.
Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, is the primary sponsor of the proposed constitutional amendment that would reshape the boards of regents at the state’s two largest universities. It would take away considerable power from the governor.
Currently, the governor appoints all the regents. Steinborn’s bill would give some of that authority to voters across New Mexico.
Steinborn, right, said the change was necessary because regent appointments often have been the state’s equivalent of ambassadorships — plum positions that go to donors or political friends of the governor.
Steinborn said his criticism was not directed at Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, but at a years-long system of governors rewarding friends and benefactors with regent appointments. He said politics in the appointment process had led to “a small kind of clique” running universities.
His bill would expand the number of regents at New Mexico State from five to seven to make it the same as UNM’s board.
Voters would elect three regents at each university. Candidates would run without affiliation with any political party.
To provide for geographic balance, voters in each of the state’s three congressional districts would elect a regent for UNM and for New Mexico State.
The governor’s appointment powers also would be changed by Steinborn’s bill.
She would have to choose two New Mexico State regents who are from Dona Ana County and two UNM regents who are from Bernalillo County. Steinborn said having regents who live in the same county as the main campus was an important feature of the bill.
His proposal also would break new ground by having one member of the faculty at each university serve as regents. Sitting regents would appoint the faculty regents.
Both UNM and New Mexico State would each continue to have a student regents. Sitting regents also would appoint the student regents, after consultation with the student body.
Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico, voted against the bill, saying he did not like the provision for faculty regents.
He said this would be equivalent to a teacher serving on a hometown school board. That would make the teacher both the subordinate and the boss of the school superintendent.
An opposite view came from Rep. Mimi Stewart, right, D-Albuquerque. She called the faculty at the major state universities “a forgotten voice” in the governing structure.
Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, said he was wary of the possibility of additional costs to elect regents. He also said the existing system seemed to be working fine, prompting his vote against the bill.
Baldonado said Martinez recently made an outstanding regent appointment by selecting former Republican state Rep. Conrad James for the UNM board. Democrat Liz Thomson defeated James in the November election, and Martinez appointed him as a regent soon after.
James, 38, right, is a research engineer. He received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in applied and engineering physics from Cornell University.
Steinborn, though, said a 2008 study by a researcher at Michigan State University found that New Mexico was near the bottom nationally in university governance, primarily because the state has no standards for those who serve as regents. He said his bill would create interest in regent positions and engage the voting public by giving it a voice in who serves.
His bill, House Joint Resolution 9, goes next to the House Voters and Elections Committee.
If it clears the House of Representatives and the Senate, Martinez could not veto it. That is because the legislative action would send the proposal to the voters for the final say. The proposal would go on the ballot in November 2014.
Steinborn also is sponsoring a second constitutional amendment that would create a regent nominating commission. It would screen candidates for regent seats at all four-year universities and colleges, as well as the state schools for the blind and deaf and the New Mexico Military Institute.
Finalists for regent seats would be forwarded to the governor, who would make her selections from the commission’s short list.