It’s just what New Mexico doesn’t need: More down-ballot races or low-turnout elections that politicize important decision-making positions at complex institutions.
Yet that would be the end result of legislation that would ask voters to change the state Constitution to convert seats on the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University boards of regents from the current system of gubernatorial appointees to elected positions.
Does New Mexico really need to replicate the Public Regulation Commission?
Sponsor Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, is rightly concerned about the secrecy surrounding the swift departure of NMSU President Barbara Couture, who collected $453,000 as she passed go and said goodbye. But even he acknowledges that his House Joint Resolution 9, which has voters pick three of seven regents for each university, won’t ensure transparency or accountability.
If anything, it will ensure almost nobody knows anything about three of each school’s regents as they are either way down the ballot or in a special election with minimal turnout.
Another supporter of the legislation, Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, says “regents should answer to the public, not to a governor.” And how would they campaign and answer to the public? By promising raises for university employees, sweeter pensions or perhaps lower entrance standards so more local kids could go to college?
Is this really the way to improve our state’s universities?
Besides, the governor answers to the public for his or her appointees, regents are subject to Senate confirmation hearings and votes, and the last thing we need is to create more electoral fiefdoms.
Woods also says schools need regents with business backgrounds who can direct curriculum into high-tech fields. Going forward, the idea of setting qualifications for regents is a reasonable debate point, and Steinborn’s HJR 8 proposal to have a nominating commission make recommendations to the governor is interesting provided they are not binding.
Meanwhile, the current UNM and NMSU boards — Eastern New Mexico University in Portales is not included in the resolution — include successful businesspeople, engineers, lawyers, a judge, a bank president and a retired military officer. All have impressive biographies readily accessible on the universities’ websites.
As for Steinborn’s goal of removing politics from the process by removing political appointments — he says “in many cases our regents positions are treated as political plums” — switching to a way-down ballot race or low-turnout school board election merely switches to a candidate who may have campaign favors to repay in the form of jobs. Again the PRC comes to mind, where felons and relatives have been on the staff payroll.
If lawmakers want to make university operations more accountable and transparent, they should address those issues directly. It would be better to have regents adopt good-government policies that support those ideals no matter who is on the board instead of putting board seats on the ballot and hoping good-government advocates not only run, but win.
Because if they don’t, everyone loses.
— Albuquerque Journal