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Democrats meddle where they don’t belong — the soccer field

January 25, 2019

Democrats who dominate the state House of Representatives can’t get out of their own way.

They are intent on meddling in intercollegiate athletics at the University of New Mexico. UNM decided to eliminate four sports teams, a decision that should be left alone by state legislators with many more important issues on their agenda.

Instead, the Democrats say these sports programs rate as a priority.

Now they’re positioning themselves as a modern-day posse riding to the rescue of a university athletics department operating in red ink. The Democrats’ plan is to add money to the state budget to save these teams.

Legislators know the political hacks on the UNM Board of Regents were asleep at the wheel for years when it came to overseeing the school’s Athletics Department. The regents did nothing to address deficit spending until they faced a splash of publicity about taxpayers being charged for a golf junket to Scotland by UNM’s Athletics Department.

So the regents last year voted to eliminate men’s soccer, beach volleyball and men’s and women skiing.

I would have preferred that they put the football program out of its misery. This would have saved more money, but the regents were afraid dozens of people might complain if they axed football.

Rep. Brian Egolf, speaker of the House of Representatives, and other Democrats in leadership positions then joined the debate about UNM sports teams. They said saving men’s soccer is a priority.

That’s right. In a state filled with poverty, a collegiate soccer program is a priority for House Democrats. In a state where 1 in 4 kids doesn’t finish high school, a few sports teams at UNM are a matter of importance for legislators.

These are the same lawmakers who only two years ago swiped $40 million from school districts and charter schools. State government was broke then. The treasurer worried about violating state law by operating at a deficit.

Times are better now. An oil boom in the southeastern section of the state means revenue for state government should be up about $1.1 billion this year, according to state analysts.

Egolf, of Santa Fe, told me Thursday this economy provides an opportunity to save the men’s soccer program and also restore money to university academic programs.

But Title IX, the law banning gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funding, would be thrown out of whack by simply reviving men’s soccer. Beach volleyball and the ski teams also would have to be saved to maintain compliance with the law.

Democratic leaders in the House are willing to allocate taxpayers’ money to salvage those sports, too.

For the moment, the state could cover these expenses without pain. But what happens the next time revenues collapse?

Egolf told me Thursday that economists agree the oil boom in the Permian and Delaware basins shows no sign of slowing down.

Those are confident words, bordering on cocky. Every boom in extraction industries becomes a bust. This one will, too. Then state government, with shrinking revenue, would still have to pay for athletic programs that the UNM regents tried to discontinue.

Sources at UNM say saving all four sports might lead to another $5 million a year in expenses.

These athletic teams are not essential to UNM or its mission. They should not be resurrected by legislators trying to wear Superman’s cape.

Egolf holds a different view. He said regents under former Gov. Susana Martinez overreacted by cutting intercollegiate sports teams.

Men’s soccer, Egolf says, is especially worth keeping because it’s successful and made up of many players from New Mexico.

He says the state and UNM, with combined budgets of about $9 billion, can help rescue UNM’s Athletics Department, which is running a deficit of about $3.3 million.

A million here, a million there and someday even Democratic House members might admit we’re talking about real money.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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