Lower ed?

Photo By dennis myers UNR this month looks like the placid New England movie-set campus it once was in movies like Mother Was a Freshman, but the campus in these budget-cutting days is hardly placid.

As state revenues continue their seemingly unending decline,
there’s apprehension on the hill—the hill on which sits the
University of Nevada, Reno and the headquarters office for the
state’s higher education system.

“If it’s a statement of priorities that no
legislator’s speaking up and saying ‘Wait, we’ve hit
higher education hard enough …’” said UNR faculty
leader James Richardson, letting the thought dwindle without completing
the sentence. “I’m trying to avoid being
depressed.”

The silence from the legislators in the wake of Gov. Jim
Gibbons’ call for cuts has been pronounced.

Gibbons initially asked for 1.4 percent and 3 percent cuts, then
raised that to 6 percent, 8 percent and 10 percent. He is considering
calling the Nevada Legislature into session to repeal a state law in
order to qualify the state for additional elementary and secondary
education funding, and to make cuts in state agency spending.

UNR President Milton Glick declined to prepare such budget cutting
plans and told administrators not to do so until the Nevada Board of
Regents, which governs the higher education system, is heard from.
Under the Nevada Constitution, the Nevada Board of Regents is in effect
a fourth branch of government, standing upheld by the Nevada Supreme
Court, which ruled in 1948 that the regents hold “exclusive
executive and administrative control” of the campuses. While that
still puts the higher education system under the fiscal control of the
legislature, the governor has limited authority over it.

Richardson, who edits the newspaper of the Nevada Faculty Alliance,
this month published a table taken from a September report issued by
the Gibbons administration for a small business “summit.”
The table shows the percentage by which various sectors of state
government have been cut from the 2007-2009 biennium to the current
2009-2011 biennium. Higher education leads the list, having lost just
under one fourth of its funding—24 percent. By comparison,
commerce and industry-related agencies lost 18.6 percent and
administrative and financial agencies lost 19.4 percent. Elected
officials saw cuts of 1.5 percent. And kindergarten through 12th grade
received just over a 10 percent increase, mostly because local contract
obligations required the legislature to provide that level of
funding.

Richardson published the table because, he said, few policymakers
seem to remember that higher education in the state got hurt the most
in budget cutting earlier in the recession.

“The thing that’s most irritating to me … is that
everybody seems to be suffering from collective amnesia about what cuts
have already been rendered against various agencies and entities. …
We got hit the hardest but nobody’s saying, ‘We’re
going to hit these other agencies first and get back to you only in
emergencies because you gave at the office.’ That’s not
happening.”

Nevada higher education chancellor Dan Klaich had the same thing in
mind when he sent a Dec. 8 letter to the governor. Klaich was more
diplomatic than his predecessor Jim Rogers, but his letter was still
emphatic.

“I know you will keep in mind that no major agency budget took
a larger and more disproportionate cut than did the [Nevada System of
Higher Education] last session,” Klaich wrote. “In fact, at
least one major state agency budget increased above last
biennium’s levels, and all others absorbed smaller cuts than did
[higher education].”

Contracts are also at issue for the higher education system.

“We are halfway through our fiscal year, thereby effectively
doubling the effect of any suggested cut,” Klaich wrote.
“Contracts are executed for the year, class schedules are
published, registration is largely complete, and we have accepted
students’ fees. For these reasons, an operating budget reduction
at this time is virtually impossible to implement.”

Many state legislators are skeptical that a special session is
needed. The repeal of the education law will bring money that can only
be used for elementary and secondary education, which is one part of
the budget that got an increase from the last legislature. And
repealing the law, which prohibits the use of student performance in
evaluating teachers, would not, by itself, necessarily make the state
eligible for the funds, according to Washoe County Sen. William Raggio,
who said there are other criteria for the state to qualify for the
federal money, some of which the state likely could not meet. He
produced a list of the criteria, which included “adopting
internationally benchmarked standards and assessments” and
“building data systems that measure student success and inform
teachers and principals in how they can improve their practices,”
among others. It also requires the state to participate “in a
consortium of states [that] includes a significant number of
states.” Though Raggio supports repealing the evaluation law,
he’s not sure that it needs to be done in a special session,
since the state is not likely to qualify for the federal money anytime
soon.

RAGGIO

As for the legislators being called into special session to make
cuts, the lawmakers say they anticipated that and provided for a $160
million line of credit that Gibbons can use in order to avoid the
special session. In fact, it is built into the budget Gibbons himself
signed. The governor’s office has said Gibbons does not want to
put the state further into debt.

“We did balance the budget with that [credit line],”
said Clark County Sen. Robert Coffin. “So we’ve already put
it to use. The question is, should we just [use] it six months
early?”

But Assemblymember Lynn Stewart of Clark County, a retired high
school teacher, said, “If you borrow, you have to pay it back.
You have to be careful about digging even a deeper hole.”

Coffin argues that not all spending is created equal, that it is
more expensive to later rebuild programs than to keep them running now:
“Well, I’d rather not tear down now.”

Raggio says Gibbons’ reluctance to use the line of credit is
in contrast to his earlier behavior. He recalls that earlier this year
the governor suggested that the lawmakers balance the budget by
securitizing the state’s income from the tobacco settlement.

“What’s the difference?” Raggio asked.
“He’s saying now, ‘Don’t use line of
credit’? Well, those were [tobacco securitization] bonds you have
to pay back.”

Raggio also noted that Gibbons used the $160 million line of credit
in his original budget recommendations to the lawmakers in January.

“In the governor’s initial budget, he plugged in
the $160 million,” Raggio said. The italics were in his tone of
voice. He said Gibbons has had shifting positions on debt. “As
you recall, he also put in $300 million in the room tax increase [into
his budget recommendations] and then refused to sign it.
C’mon.”

Coffin also said he believes the campuses should not be tapped for
additional money for exactly the reason Richardson cited—the
damage the system has already suffered.

“I don’t think we should have the same reduction in
budgets again. … Some have already been hurt more than
others,” Coffin said.

All of this is happening at a time when the legislature and governor
want the campuses to play a role in helping the state evolve from
dependency on a declining casino industry to energy research and
development.

“Historically, we have emerged from economic challenges
stronger through diversification,” Gibbons said in his January
2009 message to the Nevada Legislature. “We can do the same now
by focusing on developing our bountiful renewable energy resources and
becoming an energy exporting state. Nevada has the talent, expertise,
resources.”

But the resources he cited were adjudged by many energy experts to
be inadequate to the task, and as a result of the budget cuts they are
becoming even less significant.

In his letter to the governor, Klaich wrote, “You have said
over and over that we cannot tax our way out of this depression. It is
just as true that we cannot cut our way to excellence in
education”

Some players who have watched the struggle over budget cuts have
said the governor seems poorly informed on some issues he deals with.
Coffin said when he raised the issue of the line of credit with the
governor, Gibbons seemed uncertain. “I don’t know if he
realizes he has the loan authority, actually,” Coffin said.

Richardson said the governor’s actions seem to indicate he was
not aware of the way the higher education system works in relation to
the regents’ authority and the system’s contracts.
“Well, it could certainly be interpreted that way. … I
don’t understand it,” Richardson said.

Budget changes
from 2007-09 to 2009-11 in percentages

Elected officials -1.7

Finance/administration -19.4

Education

       Kindergarten +10.1

       Higher education -24.0

       Other -26.0

Commerce and industry -18.8

Human services -0.1

Public safety -15.4

Infrastructure -17.6

Special purpose -20.5

Our content is free, but not free to produce

If you value our local news, arts and entertainment coverage, become an RN&R supporter with a one-time or recurring donation. Help us keep our reporters at work, bringing you the stories that need to be told.

Donate to RN&R

$8,088 of $6,000 raised
$
Select Payment Method
Personal Info

Donation Total: $10.00 Monthly

These donations are not tax deductible. If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation to our nonprofit fund, the Independent Journalism Fund, please click here.

About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.