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August 22, 2014

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higher education:

Board of Regents backs call for bigger higher education budget

Lone dissenter: Now not time to be ‘cheerleader’

Ron Knecht

Ron Knecht

Chancellor Dan Klaich

Chancellor Dan Klaich

The voice of dissent from upstate was blunt.

The chancellor of the university system had just presented a budget to the Board of Regents in Las Vegas that asked for $1 billion-plus in state spending, an increase of nearly 25 percent, when the governor had asked for cuts of 10 percent from all state agencies.

Ron Knecht, a regent from Carson City speaking by video link, said “expecting an increase at this point would be the height of self-absorption.” Unemployment is high, tax revenue down and a $3 billion shortfall looms in the coming $6.5 billion budget.

Knecht, a former state assemblyman, said the “current debate was often disconnected from the facts” and the board should represent the people of Nevada and not be “a cheerleader for higher education.”

Nonetheless, the regents Friday approved the budget by 11 in favor, 1 regent absent and Knecht voting against.

Overall, the 2011-13 budget request, including student and other fees, would rise more than 3 percent — factoring in a nearly 25 percent boost from the state — to $1.65 billion.

Unlike state agencies whose directors are appointed by the governor, the Board of Regents is elected and regards itself as independent from other state institutions.

Meanwhile, Rory Reid, the Democratic candidate for governor, proposed Thursday to save $2.5 billion through cuts and revenue growth in the next two years. He said his plan does not include tax increases.

Reid called for sharp cuts in state programs such as the state controller and treasurer’s offices, but did not explicitly mention higher education.

Reid is scheduled to debate his Republican opponent, Brian Sandoval, in Las Vegas on Sunday. Gov. Jim Gibbons, who called for budget cuts, was defeated in the primary. The most sensitive part of the regents’ proposed budget is the 72 cents of each budget dollar that would come from state spending, a sharp increase in the state share from 60 cents in the 2009-11 period.

Regents voted to ask for $1.19 billion, up 24.4 percent from the previous $956 million.

University officials noted that $185 million in federal stimulus money — included in the current budget — wouldn’t be available in the future.

Revenue from student fees would rise 6 percent to $443.7 million.

In an interview after the meeting, Ray Rawson, a regent from Clark County and a former state senator, reflected the opinion of most regents that identifying cuts is premature before the Legislature considers the budget as a whole.

“Some say, why not close a campus?” Rawson said. “Well, which campus would you close? Let’s close Western Nevada Community College. That may seem like a good idea down here” in Las Vegas.

“But it’s a pretty bad idea for Fallon or Carson City or people in more rural areas who ought to have the same right to education we do.”

Rawson noted that a shuttered campus is unlikely to reopen. “The things that we close now, we will never see again, they will never reopen,” Rawson said. “Let’s not make changes that are irreversible.”

He compared a university to a household in which one of the parents has lost a job and the family owes more on its house than it’s worth.

“We’re upside down,” he said. “But we ought to keep the house. That ought to be the last thing that goes.”

Rawson was appointed to the board by Gibbons after Steve Sisolak, the incumbent regent, was elected to the Clark County Commission. Knecht, the dissenting regent, is a former campaign official for Gibbons.

Chancellor Dan Klaich, who submitted the budget, noted the overall budget rise of 3 percent to $1.65 billion.

Klaich then talked about what he called the “elephant in the room,” Gibbons’ call for a 10 percent cut.

Klaich said undergoing more than one budget-cutting session would be ruinous to higher education.

“It’s programs, and careers and 120 days of hell, as you go through the list of who will stay and who will go,” Klaich said. “We can’t go to our campuses and say, ‘You may be next, but please stay and work.’ ”

And he noted the potential for a face-off with the governor over spending. “Nothing could be further from the truth” that the budget is somehow “in contempt” of Gibbons, Klaich said.

Michael Wixom, a regent from Clark County and a corporate attorney, said the chancellor is right. “I don’t like hypotheticals,” Wixom said. “This is premature. (The budget cut) could be 10 percent, it could be 15, and it could be 20. My experience tells me you go through this process once.

“Some have said we are on a happy journey through Oz. I don’t care. This discussion is not over. Give us a number.”

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