February 5, 2018

Senate panel blocks amendment on selecting regents


New Mexico State Senate.

A state Senate committee on Monday blocked a proposed constitutional amendment that backers argued would have helped depoliticize the often partisan process of selecting regents for the boards of New Mexico’s public universities.

Instead of leaving it for governors to pick just about whoever they like to lead the biggest institutions in the state’s sprawling higher education system, Senate Joint Resolution 1 would have created nominating committees to vet applicants for each vacant board seat and recommend appointees. The governor could then choose from the committee’s list.

But Republicans and Democrats alike on the Senate Judiciary Committee raised a range of sometimes contradictory concerns.

The proposal was too vague, some argued. Others questioned whether picking regents is just one of the perks of being governor. And yet more asked whether this might just make the process all the more political or insular.

Ultimately, members of the committee were not sold.

“I think this is a solution in search of a problem,” said Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Democrat from Las Cruces and a candidate for governor.

The resolution called for creating a system not too different from how judges are picked to fill empty seats in the state judiciary.

The wording was still open ended, leaving it to legislators to decide how exactly these nominating committees would operate.

But the amendment would have required that no more than half the members of a nominating committee are members of the same political party. The amendment would have required the committees to provide the governor at least three nominees, not simply make the choice by way of only nominating one or two people. And the Senate would still have been responsible for confirming or rejecting nominees.

The process, supporters argued, would have been a boost for more qualified candidates and been more inclusive of university communities.

Picks for university regents have been contentious. In fact, the only appointee of Gov. Susana Martinez rejected by the state Senate during her two terms in office was a political ally she had chosen for The University of New Mexico Board of Regents.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, a Democrat from Albuquerque, said he had opposed similar measures in the past but had come to support the idea after serving on a selection committee for the president’s post at UNM.

“We had a process that was open,” he said, adding that there should be a similar rigor in selecting regents.

The state Higher Education Department supported the proposal.

But still, with policy makers also mulling bigger changes to the state’s higher education system, some questioned why they should adopt a new system instead of having just one statewide board of regents or electing regents.

The proposal failed on a 5-4 vote. Sens. Greg Baca, R-Belen, Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Candelaria supported the measure. Sens. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, William Payne, R-Albuquerque, Richard Martinez, D-Española, and Cervantes voted against it.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.