Monday, Aug. 25, 2008 | 2 a.m.
After months on the business end of higher education Chancellor Jim Rogers’ scathing memos, Gov. Jim Gibbons’ administration finally hit back last week, signaling a more aggressive effort to defend and promote the governor’s position in the run-up to the 2009 legislative session.
In a letter to Rogers last week, Gibbons said the university system will have to cut its budget, and too much spending has been a cause of the current financial straits.
He also ramped up the debate when, in the four-page letter, Gibbons focused the debate on higher education employees’ salaries.
“The system of higher education currently employs 1,328 people who are paid $100,000 or more annually,” Gibbons wrote. “I cannot help but wonder how many Nevadans would support an income tax, or any increased taxes for that matter, to sustain those salary levels in the face of significant government spending reductions in other areas.”
Rogers has been highly critical of Gibbons’ handling of the state budget crisis, and has said the cuts Gibbons has asked for will do irreparable harm to the university system.
The governor’s spokesman, Ben Kieckhefer, said Gibbons’ letter — the first in response to the Rogers memos that have landed with frequency during the state’s budget crisis — came in response to a direct question Rogers had asked.
“The chancellor stated he did not understand the governor’s policy when it comes to financial responsibility,” Kieckhefer said. “So that’s what we gave him — clarity.”
The letter was a welcome shift in approach to Republican partisans who have become increasingly irked at Rogers’ missives, which some say have an insulting, condescending tone. It appears to signal a more active role in the public debate for the administration, which since March has hired a new communications director, chief of staff, general counsel and deputy chief of staff.
Kieckhefer said, “There are going to be some difficult choices that have to be made, and we’re not going to make them without explaining those decisions to the people of Nevada. If that’s seen as more aggressive, so be it.”
Not that Rogers is one to turn the other cheek. He sent a terse, four-sentence reply to the governor on Friday.
Gibbons’ letter, Rogers wrote, “confirmed every one of my fears and concerns. It is apparent that in your desire to reduce the size of government, you have no problem sacrificing education.”
In an interview, Rogers said the governor “can say whatever he wants, in whatever tone he wants.”
“This is not a personal issue,” he said. “I’m not offended by anything he says, I’m troubled by what he says.”
Rogers said he hopes the Legislature will find budget solutions other than cutting. He said he has statements from legislative leaders to that effect, though he wouldn’t release them last week.
“I have another memo going out” this week, Rogers said.
The governor’s call for state agencies to cut 14 percent from their proposed budgets for the next two fiscal years hasn’t stopped department heads from requesting $1.4 billion in construction projects.
The state Public Works Board starts hearings Tuesday to allow agency chiefs to outline their requests, which amount to 181 projects. The Nevada Higher Education System is proposing 38 projects for state campuses. And the Corrections Department has 89 proposed projects.
Officials expect to have about $500 million in bonding capacity to finance the work.
The 2007 Legislature allocated $180 million for construction projects, but more cash isn’t expected to be available this time around because of the budget troubles.
Evan Dale, deputy manager of the Public Works Board, said $322 million of the projects will be financed outside the state’s general fund budget by using such things as federal money, highway funds and grants. That leaves $1.1 billion in requests directed at state coffers.
Gus Nunez, manager of the Public Works Board, will make his recommendations to the board on Sept. 10. The board will make its recommendations to the governor by Oct. 1.