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October 25, 2014

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Higher education wants bigger slice of state budget pie

Chancellor turns nose up at budget cuts, asks for increase in funding

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This is how unwilling higher education officials are in working with Gov. Jim Gibbons to negotiate budget cuts: Not only will they not discuss them, but they’re talking about needing more money.

In a strategy tantamount to poking Gibbons in the eyes, the Board of Regents will consider a budget this week that would raise state spending for higher education from $1.14 billion this biennium to $1.19 billion in the coming budget cycle, an increase of 4.5 percent.

Chancellor Dan Klaich said the budget reflects what the system needs to continue to function.

But that’s not what Gibbons’ budget office has sought. It wants state agencies, including higher education, to identify by Sept. 1 how they’ll cut their budgets by 10 percent. And most state agencies comply because the directors serve at the governor’s pleasure. But the Board of Regents, which oversees higher education, is independently elected.

The issue playing out is whether the higher education system is showing strength by refusing to offer a reduced-spending plan, or whether it would do itself a favor by showing where the cuts would be to gain public sympathy.

Higher ed doesn’t like to back down. Two years ago, in advance of the 2009 Legislature, then-Chancellor Jim Rogers refused to identify cuts at a time when Gibbons was proposing slashing state funding by 37 percent. The Legislature had to intervene, whittling that down to 13 percent, though many cuts were offset by federal stimulus funding.

The regents will consider the increased budget at a meeting Friday.

“Anyone who understands what’s happening in politics and economics today knows we’re in a fight for the heart and soul and future of Nevada,” Klaich said. “I can’t understand why anyone would want or expect me to surrender that fight seven months before the fight is engaged.”

This scenario assumes that budget cuts are a negotiation, and Klaich doesn’t want to be in the position of someone who offers to sell his car at a below-market price, only for the buyer to press for still more concessions before a deal is struck.

But while legislators have little affection or patience for Gibbons, those hoping to make the case for tax increases say higher education should identify where it would make cuts, so that voters understand what’s at stake.

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said the higher education system could be hurting its own cause by not laying out specific cuts early and often.

“If the system is going to collapse, let’s talk about it,” she said. “The public is not going to support new taxes unless they fully understand the consequences of what budget cuts are going to be.”

She said that without specifics, the cuts are just an amorphous number that the public assumes can be found through cutting waste and fat.

“We need to have that dialogue now and lay out the ramifications in a factual, non-hysterical way,” she said, “even though public reaction will, I think, be fairly hysterical.”

As chancellor, Rogers engaged in — and seemed to enjoy — open warfare with Gibbons. He refused to submit cuts, arguing that any loss in funding would cripple the system. Klaich has a gentler relationship with the governor’s office.

Gibbons’ Deputy Chief of Staff Stacy Woodbury would say only, “The executive branch and this governor are tasked with presenting a balanced budget. We will provide a balanced budget.”

Last session, that meant the 13 percent cut in state funding for higher education.

Other agencies are playing ball with the governor’s office, one former senior administration official noted, pointing to how the Health and Human Services Department clearly laid out what the effects of cuts would be on the services it provides to the poor and elderly — old people losing dentures and hearing aids, the mentally ill and developmentally disabled losing housing.

“Higher ed is higher ed,” said the official, granted anonymity to speak frankly about the budget process. “They didn’t want to give anybody their budget, the legislative branch or the governor’s office.”

Asked the most effective way to fight against cuts, the official said: “The best strategy anytime to push against cuts is to show what it’s going to do.”

To be sure, preparing for budget cuts isn’t easy, particularly in a higher education system where proposed cuts go through multiple layers of reviews by campus presidents, faculty and an independently elected board.

With Gibbons’ loss in June’s primary, the incoming governor could very well have a new policy direction, though both Republican Brian Sandoval and Democrat Rory Reid have promised not to raise taxes.

“With the economic and political situation in this state so greatly in flux, who can know what a budget will look like?” Klaich said. “I think laying out countless scenarios of what could occur is not what the people of Nevada want us to be doing.”

Still, the debates during the 2009 session and in subsequent budget cuts revolved around a number — a 13 percent cut in state funding in 2009, followed by a 6.9 percent cut in February — rather than in terms of specific programs to be cut.

Take, for example, the February special session called to close the state’s $800 million hole. Taxes were taken off the table and conservatives cheered the combination of cuts, fees and taking money from various local governments used to balance the budget. When UNR proposed eliminating its College of Agriculture, many of those same conservatives from rural Nevada protested.

Klaich said the higher education system would surely articulate the effect of budget cuts before the process is settled next summer — as, he said, it has done in the past.

“When the political process came to an end,” he said of February’s special session, “we laid out very clearly what the impacts of the cuts would mean.”

But by then, the decisions had been made.

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