By John Sena: The New Mexican
Hopes that Santa Fe will have a four-year public university next fall were kept alive Monday as the House of Representatives voted 49-16 for a bill authorizing a state institution to take over the College of Santa Fe campus.
However, the proposal still faces a major hurdle: Clearing the New Mexico Senate.
Officials from the college have already announced that the private college will close in May, and students and employees are relying on a state take-over — possibly by New Mexico Highlands University — as their last hope for keeping programs going here.
Monday’s House vote prompted brief applause and cheers from about 80 supporters of the college who wore purple College of Santa Fe T-shirts and sweatshirts, waved purple college pennants and took up most of the seats in the House gallery.
“It’s so encouraging that there’s so much support from these legislators,” said Nick Kunz, the college’s disabilities services coordinator. “Overall, it’s an investment for the state that we can’t pass up.”
Keith Murphy, a student at the college, said he and others expect an “uphill climb” in the Senate.
He stressed that he hopes legislators remember that if they don’t approve a take-over now, they won’t get another chance. “If we go away,” he said, “we’re gone for good.”
House members expressed concerns about the $35 million it would take to buy the campus and the approximately $3 million yearly in state funds needed to operate it. They also questioned how the college arrived in its current situation.
Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, asked how much a state institution would pay in debt service if it takes over the campus.
Rep. Lucky Varela, D-Santa Fe, a College of Santa Fe alumnus who introduced House Bill 577, said the debt would be paid over 30 years at a rate of 3.9 percent and would cost $1.8 million per year. It would be paid with student fees, he said.
Another concern was how the college would pay for operations if tuition is reduced as proposed by Highlands — students currently pay about $27,000 per year, but tuition would drop to about $5,000 for in-state students and $15,000 for out-of-state under the Highlands’ plan.
Varela argued that operating in the state system would mean efficiencies and that more students would enroll if tuition was decreased.
Varela said the final vote was an indication that his answers eased concerns and may have moved representatives to vote for the bill.
Others, primarily Democrats from Northern New Mexico, expressed their support for the proposal, citing both the college’s educational and historical importance.
“It’s a fantastic liberal arts college that rivals any in the country,” said Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque.
The House has already approved a state budget that includes $3 million for operations of the college.
As the take-over proposal moves to the Senate, the bill could face greater scrutiny. Already, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D- Deming, has said that approving new state money for any project represents a challenge under the current financial climate.
The two-thirds approval of the proposal by the House maintains an emergency clause attached to the bill. If approved by two-thirds of the Senate, the clause would mean the bill goes into affect as soon as Gov. Bill Richardson signs it.