As an education employee of the state of New Mexico, I have been asked to give up 1.5 percent of my pay for the coming fiscal year. A $400 million shortfall, they tell us. OK. The school district comes to us today, and asks us to give up one day’s pay to help balance the budget here in our district, and keep everybody employed. A $400,000 shortfall, they tell us. OK. We all know state revenue is down. A lot. I guess we all have to do our part, and we know things are much worse in other parts of the country. We’re probably getting by comparatively easy, and everybody’s doing their part, right? I guess I can get by with 2 percent less than last year.
So I open up the newspaper today: state-run Highlands University to build $18 million student center, one that is more “accessible.” $18 million — 4.5 percent of the entire state budget shortfall. Roughly 36 times my local school district’s shortfall.
I get in the car, drive over to the NMHU campus, and look for a building marked “Student Center.” Looks pretty nice to me. Some big screen TVs visible through the window; nobody seems to be watching them. Doesn’t seem to be off the beaten path. Pretty much the middle of the campus, maybe a hair to the north. I drive over to Eighth and National, the proposed site of the $18 million brand-spanking new student center, passing the towering new dormitories on the way. I seem to be on the extreme east end of the campus, looking at another perfectly good building, one Mortimer Hall, to be torn down to make room for the brand-spanking new, $18 million Student Center. Hmmm.
Here’s my challenge to Dr. Fries: Take a survey of your staff and your students, and ask them if they could do without a new student center for a couple of years, to help out the local school districts. They can even keep the $17 million in change. I dare to venture that they would be willing to make that sacrifice, despite the fact that we all know that the rules of spending state money won’t allow it; and there is absolutely no way to change those rules, despite the fact that the rules seem to favor certain entities (higher education, construction firms, architectural firms, material suppliers, and friends of politicians) and disfavor others (public schools, police protection, health and social services, average citizen).
If my hunch proves correct, we then come to the question, “Who really benefits from the construction of the new Student Center?” I am convinced it will nonetheless happen, despite the economic downturn, the state budget shortfall, and the struggles of the local school districts. It seems to me that certain segments of our population are exempt from the plight of the masses.
I told myself I was just being cynical and that things weren’t really that out of whack when it comes to how we spend our state money. Don’t be a whiner, I told myself. Just about that time, I read further that the president of same university was awarded a $56,000 raise this year. About 16.25 percent of the public school shortfall. We all have to do our part, right?