By Bill Knief
UNM-Taos Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill came back from the legislative session in Santa Fe with the great news that after three straight years of severe budget reductions, including a two year moratorium on new construction for community colleges, higher education funding in New Mexico has finally stabilized. True, it leveled off at last year’s low water mark, but at least we are not facing another round of cuts.
Another reason for celebration is the fact that Gross Receipts Reauthorization Bill 19 passed the Senate and House on February 16, and now awaits the Governor’s signature to become law. SB-19 authorizes Taos County to put a half-cent gross receipts tax on the November ballot to fund public schools and higher education. This is the tax that funded the construction of Holy Cross Hospital twenty years ago, and improvements to public school facilities for the past decade. In other words, it is a continuation of a popular tax that has made possible many essential county initiatives in the past, not a tax increase. As Operations Manager Mario Suazo pointed out, “It doesn’t impact the state budget in any way. It’s a rural community taking care of its own,” so the Governor should be willing to let Taos County voters decide for themselves if they want it to continue.
Nevertheless, it never hurts to make sure our elected officials know how we feel. You can contact the governor through her website at www.governor.state.nm.us or phone her at (505) 476-2200 regarding SB-19.
Overall, Dr. O’Neill was pleased with the outcome of the legislative session, and gave a lot of the credit to our strong supporters of education, Senator Carlos Cisneros and Representative Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales.
“We are fortunate to have two very experienced legislators who have been through many administrations and legislative sessions. They understand what it takes to get a budget through. They get lobbied very hard by many people, but they never forget where they come from. My colleagues from around the state have somewhat mixed relations with legislators, so I think we should count ourselves blessed to have the knowledge and support of these two men. Their seniority, their skill, their savvy and their commitment to education and economic development in northern New Mexico is one of our greatest resources.
“As one of the newer, small colleges in the state we have to fight every day to communicate our accomplishments and our needs,” O’Neill continued. “Part of the beauty of being a rural community college is our diversity and accessibility. We serve two pueblos, we are fifty percent Hispanic and we have students from different backgrounds ranging in age from seventeen to 81. Many travel long distances to get here and often have jobs and family responsibilities on top of their class work. We simply don’t fit the model of a four year bachelor degree-granting institution that prepares students to compete with China and India. We serve people who need to sharpen their skills to make a local business prosper. We give them a start here so they can transfer to another institution and continue their education. It is a testament to our vitality, the quality of our faculty and the excellence of our programs that more than seventeen hundred students enrolled this semester.”
A shining example of excellence at UNM-Taos is our nursing program. Director Kathy Falkenhagen reported last week that the highly successful program was recommended for national accreditation after a rigorous, three day onsite review that showed the program met or exceeded national standards and criteria of educational quality. Falkenhagen is optimistic that by the end of summer the program will have achieved full accreditation status.
Finally, last Friday MAYA, the Mexican American Youth Association run by Juan Montes, honored Representative Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales for his strong and continuing support of immigrant issues.
Miera Rodriguez, who has been with the group since she was in high school eight years ago, explained that the purpose of MAYA, which is recognized by both UNM-Taos and the Taos Municipal Schools, was to help Spanish speaking students to succeed in school.
“Representative Gonzales has been a very good supporter over the years, most recently with the driver’s license issue,” she said. “He was one of those legislators who said no, we are keeping the driver’s license law the way it is, and we wanted to give him an award for always helping us. Representative Gonzales could have been anywhere today, but he chose to be with us. It was an honor to have him here.”