Still reeling from financial cuts over the past year, public colleges and universities in New Mexico are bracing for more hardships as the state Legislature heads into a special session to deal with a gaping budget shortfall of up to $650 million.

Their concerns are well founded, according to state lawmakers who say some consider higher education cuts among the easiest to make as the state faces a raft of difficult choices.

“They are squirming real bad. They are feeling the pressure,” state Rep. Jimmie Hall, vice chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, said of college leaders around the state.

“I will be very blunt,” said Hall, an Albuquerque Republican. “Everybody who has talked to me — constituents, lobbyists, legislators and staff — has said, ‘Take it out of higher ed.’ ”

The Legislative Finance Committee chairman, state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said, “You look at the magnitude of the shortfall, and you look at where the money is, and public education and higher education are going to be at the top of somebody’s list” for chopping.

The state trimmed higher education funding by 2.4 percent for fiscal year 2016 — a decline of about $16.5 million for a budget hovering around the $660 million mark.

New Mexico State University in Las Cruces responded to that drop — as well as the likelihood of more cuts in fiscal year 2017 — by slashing about $12.1 million from its budget through job cuts, attrition and the elimination of at least one academic program. Another popular program there — survey engineering — is on the chopping block but has not yet been approved for cutting, NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers said Thursday.

“It’s very dramatic here,” Carruthers said by phone. “Everybody here is very concerned about it. Everybody understands why it is happening, but it is demoralizing, to say the least.”

And, he said, the financial challenges are having a detrimental effect on enrollment recruiting efforts because parents and students may prefer to attend a college that is not facing such struggles.

Eastern New Mexico University, which runs three campuses in the southeastern part of the state, also is trimming in anticipation of a continuing budget crisis, President Steven Gamble said Thursday.

“If we wait until January to start making the cuts, half of our budget is already spent, and most of the rest is already obligated,” he said. “So we are making those cuts now.”

As with NMSU, Gamble said, cuts at ENMU will include leaving open a number of vacant staff positions. The Roswell campus eliminated one academic program, he said, but neither the Portales nor the Ruidoso site plans to do the same.

He said that even if lawmakers don’t touch higher education money during the special session, his school is preparing for the worst.

“We shouldn’t sit back and say, ‘We dodged the bullet,’ because that bullet is going to catch up with us in the January session.”

Many college leaders said it would be difficult for legislators to agree to sudden cuts for higher education spending for the current fiscal year because those college budgets are set, including programs for students and contractual obligations to staff. Changes would be hard to make halfway through a semester or midway through a full academic year.

“The reality is this: We have already signed contracts with folks. You sign a contract, and you have an obligation, and that makes such decisions even more difficult,” said Domingo Sánchez, interim president of Northern New Mexico College in Española.

But his sources in the Legislature are telling him that such cuts are possible.

“For Northern, depending on the hit, it could be anywhere from half a million to well over a million dollars, which is, to us, big bucks,” Sánchez said, given the college’s annual operating budget is a little less than $11 million.

Carruthers and Gamble both said it is unlikely the special legislative session would target their institutions. But Carruthers said that if lawmakers decide to use that session to start looking ahead at projected 2017 budget gaps, it could be “kind of risky.”

In late August, New Mexico lawmakers learned the state has an operating deficit that includes a $223 million carryover from spending during the fiscal year that ended June 30, and it faces a projected $431 million shortage for the 2017 budget year, now entering its third month.

Gov. Susana Martinez and state lawmakers have agreed to hold a special session to address the issue, but those details — including a proposed date for the event — remain unclear.

Smith said Thursday that state lawmakers and the governor have to come up with a “compromise” on a budget solution before entering into the special session, or “it won’t work real well.”

A recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that per-student funding for New Mexico’s public colleges is 30 percent below 2008 levels, while tuition has gone up by about $1,500 during that time period, “jeopardizing quality at public universities.”

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

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