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September 19, 2014

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In budget debate, different tones emerge on education

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Justin M. Bowen

Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones speaks during the 31st annual Las Vegas Perspective on Thursday, March 31, 2011, at the Four Seasons in Las Vegas.

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UNLV President Neal Smatresk speaks during the 31st annual Las Vegas Perspective on Thursday, March 31, 2011, at the Four Seasons in Las Vegas.

UNLV President Neal Smatresk and Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones recently met on separate occasions with a top Strip casino executive. Smatresk delivered a gloomy picture of what could happen to the university if deep budget cuts are adopted by state legislators — the loss of classes, students, professors, grant dollars and a further blow to UNLV’s reputation.

Jones took a different approach.

Just entering his fourth month on the job, the former Colorado state education commissioner noted that these are tough times for the state and national economies. He acknowledged that budget cuts are coming, but then came a pivot: We will take a hit now, Jones said, but we must work together in the coming years to assess the performance of all aspects of the School District, implement change, and as the economy recovers restore the budget reductions to build a stronger district.

That was the message the casino executive wanted to hear.

“Dwight is right. This is an opportunity,” a second executive who attended both closed-door meetings said. Neither executive wished to be identified for this story. “You can’t argue gloom and doom. People don’t want to hear it right now, not when hundreds of thousands remain out of work or have had their hours cut.”

Smatresk and Jones are viewed as thoughtful, articulate advocates for their institutions. Neither is seen as shrill or prone to the hyperbole of Jim Rogers, the former chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education. Both are gentle, disarming men in body language and speech. Yet, the Strip executive viewed Smatresk’s messaging as too much negativity.

During a late-January town-hall meeting with UNLV students and faculty, Smatresk said: “Our future is at stake. The future of our state is at stake. The future of the good students who are here is at stake. If you are concerned about the economic future of our state, then you have to be concerned about UNLV.”

In a March 8 letter to faculty and students at UNLV’s Boyd Law School, Smatresk wrote of likely tuition increases to counter lost revenue from budget cutting: “These additional increases will undermine the law school’s successful formula and render it a mediocre institution.”

He’s also been quoted as saying “we’ve already squeezed the blood from the stone. This is horrific to talk about people like this.”

The Strip boss counseled Smatresk that UNLV should endure the pain during the current legislative session, then he should reach out for a communitywide commitment to rebuild the university during upcoming sessions.

“Neal heard the message, and he’s seemed to have softened his approach,” the second executive said.

Corporate executives and education reform advocates want to hear talk of academic, spending and administrative reform by the university and School District. They do not want the debate to be purely focused on the spending side of the equation. To be certain, Smatresk and Jones come from different places in the debate.

Smatresk has been at UNLV for four years, first serving as its No. 2 administrator, the provost, before replacing David Ashley as president in August 2009. His message is geared to multiple constituencies — professors, students, state legislators, the Nevada Board of Regents and taxpayers. He is viewed as being “of” the UNLV culture.

Jones also must reach lawmakers, the business community, neighborhood groups and taxpayers as well as School District employees and the parents of 310,000 students, but he is “the new guy,” and some businesspeople are willing to give him time to learn as he delves into the workings of the 28,000-employee School District.

“I don’t think any of those constituencies are looking to him to immediately have those answers when he’s still trying to get his arms around the system,” MGM Resorts International Senior Vice President Alan Feldman said. “That said, it would be our view that the path to consensus on how to properly fund education has to include serious discussion of reform. Simply finding ways to fund the status quo is unacceptable.”

The financial reality is troubling for UNLV and the School District. A projected 315 faculty and staff positions could be lost at the university if Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed budget is passed, according to Smatresk. If the cuts are made, the university would have lost more than 800 positions in recent years. Significant grant dollars would be reduced or eliminated. First-rate students would not get the classes they need.

Las Vegas Perspective

Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones speaks during the 31st annual Las Vegas Perspective on Thursday, March 31, 2011, at the Four Seasons in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

The Jones and Smatresk styles were displayed Thursday at the Four Seasons at Mandalay Bay, where political, business and community leaders attended the annual Las Vegas Perspective breakfast. Jeremy Aguero of Applied Analysis laid out his statistical portrayal of economic reality in this region. Jones and Smatresk spoke separately to open the event.

Jones delivered a message of contrition and humility. Smatresk, a gentle sales pitch with a touch of frustration. Gone were some of the more strident statements that characterized his comments just a month ago.

“I would submit to you we’re a critical investment,” Smatresk said.

He spoke of the $250 million a year that is generated by Thomas & Mack Center. He pointed to $140 million spent annually by out-of-state students who he said have an annual economic effect of $240 million via a multiplier effect. UNLV brings in $100 million annually through grants and contracts that turn over four times through the regional economy, Smatresk added.

Overall, the university has graduated 100,000 students since opening in 1957, with 70,000 of them living and working in the region. Southern Nevada has one of the lowest percentages in the country for residents with bachelor’s degrees: 20 percent compared with the 40 percent who live in the Salt Lake City area.

“Part of our mission is to change that number so it’s closer to the regional competition,” he said. “That’s our mission. That’s our job.”

The tone was soft with little inflection. Jones was equally gentle, though his delivery was energized and disarmingly contrite.

“What I’m hearing from the community is that you don’t trust the data coming out of the school system,” Jones told the 450 people who attended the breakfast. “We will be transparent. You will be able to compare schools.”

He has brought in consultants to parse perceptions of the oft-criticized School District, which has a high school graduation rate of 48 percent to 72 percent, depending upon who’s offering the numbers. Johns Hopkins University produced the lower figure, the School District, the higher. Jones has made it clear to his staff that he wants the answer, the accurate answer.

The district stands to lose $250 million to $400 million from its budget, depending on the outcome of the legislative session in Carson City, and that could mean the loss of 2,486 jobs, according to a worst-case scenario.

Jones is seeking numbers that would speak to the district’s “true effectiveness” in a variety of areas, from all levels of student education to teacher and administrator performance. He is a process guy, and he is not prepared to talk dismally until he has a fuller understanding of the district, for now.

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  1. "The Strip boss counseled Smatresk that UNLV should endure the pain during the current legislative session, then he should reach out for a communitywide commitment to rebuild the university during upcoming sessions."

    This is obnoxious on so many levels. First of all, when was the last time a Strip gaming executive endured any pain? Secondly, how does this wise sage propose that students who lose their major "rebuild" in the future? Or faculty or staff who are laid off and, facing an economy ruined by local business leaders, won't be able to even sell their homes and will likely have to declare bankrupcy? Why would there be "communitywide investment" in the future, when the Strip in particular has paid no attention to supporting UNLV for decades?

    And wasn't it only months ago that the largest entity on the Strip, perhaps the one that this "top executive" runs, had to rely on intervention from the Senate Majority Leader to keep the banks from pushing it into bankruptcy? What if the advice then had been "endure the pain" now and "rebuild" later?

    Finally what kind of coward says this "behind closed doors"? Come on down to UNLV, Mr. Strip executive, and tell the students and faculty yourself that you think we should "endure the pain" -- after tuition has been just about doubled in 3 years, 15% of state-funded positions cut, 6 academic programs closed and faculty reassigned or laid off, workloads increased across campus, salaries and benefits cut, and now a plan moving inexorably forward to cut another 350 positions more than 2/3 of them currently occupied and thus requiring layoffs.

    What kind of "executive" responds to that with "endure the pain"?

    Obviously, if you're a "top strip executive," the last thing you want is a diversified economy and a trained workforce, because after all, if you've got 20% unemployment in town, that certainly makes it easy to shift more and more of your workforce to part-time and force dealers to share tips with their supervisors.

    Didn't Arguero at the same meeting described above call for a "new Nevada" based on a highly trained workforce and a diversified economy?

    Why isn't this story about how some "top Strip executive" didn't get the message?

  2. The fate of the Casinos will go the same path that education takes in Nevada.

  3. The myopia of our leaders renders me utterly mute.

  4. As a casual observer to all of this, I would say that the Strip Execs. were and are right.

    The boys from higher education were coming off as whiners, in a state where people are hurting. Higher education has taken some hits, but so has everyone else. We have sat through years of this gloom and doom. Very little from the higher education folks about getting ready to meet this challenge. Cuts are coming ready or not. The thing is higher education has a case to make, but has really failed to make it effectively.

    What has come off is higher education is isolated community, with its own standards, that lost touch with the world around it. The Regents approved a budget with an increase of 3 percent over the last biennium even though there was not stimulus money. The Chancellor decided to work on a plan for cuts only after the budget was submitted by the governor. The budget crisis has been building for two year and these guys finally got the message. I think a couple pointers from the gaming execs. was necessary and humane.

    At least the superintendent looks awake and engaged. He has been a bit evasive about where cuts will fall but he at least appears to get up and go to work in the same world as the rest of us.

  5. Turrialba, it seems to me that you conflate matters when you refer to "higher education" and then talk about the regents and the chancellor. Whatever one thinks of them, good or ill, they are not, alone, higher education. They don't attend or teach classes or clean buildings or register students. They are not faculty and staff.

    Not all faculty and staff are hurting (some need to hurt a lot more). But significant numbers are, and students are the ones who are going to suffer--but not nearly so much as a state that destroys its higher education system (and perhaps even K-12) to save it. The last people I recall saying they had to destroy something to save it were our commanders in Vietnam. You may recall, that didn't go terribly well for us.

  6. NSHE admins need to get a clue. NHSE saw a 5.9 percent decline in total revenue between 2008 and 2011 and then goes and talks gloom and doom to Casino Execs who saw gaming wins decline what, more than 20 percent during the recession?

    Rule number 1 in public speaking: know your audience...

  7. UNLV is a mediocre school and K-12 is failing. I can't support funding the current system. The school administrations will not improve their results until the public requires them to do so.

    This is their wake up call.

    The public is not getting enough value for the Billions we spend every year on education. Education consumes 55% of the state budget. We have yet to be told why we have poor results. The public only hears, "education needs more money".

    Smatresk is part of the problem...
    Super Jones is on the right track.

  8. Michael:

    You are making little sense this morning.

    As for the Vietnam remark, it is both tasteless and way off point.

    As for higher education, the regents and chancellor comprise the very public face of higher education in this state. Dr.Smatresk is the face of UNLV. Similarly, the Superintendent Jones is the public face of CCSD during the budget deliberations. My statement hardly conflates matters.

    The quote:

    "Dwight is right. This is an opportunity," a second executive who attended both closed-door meetings said. Neither executive wished to be identified for this story. "You can't argue gloom and doom. People don't want to hear it right now, not when hundreds of thousands remain out of work or have had their hours cut."

    Sometimes during recession/depression a retrenchment of a business, household budget, or government budgets, is the reset button. Issues are put on the table and given consideration that would not during periods of growth and prosperity. This is why there is an opportunity to make meaningful changes that will pay off in the long-run.
    The Casinos are struggling with this problem right now too. The model they are operating right now is broken. The past isn't coming back anytime soon. They are up to their eyes in debt.

    The scope and purpose of state and local government comes into question as well. Revenues are down. The system of taxation is broken.

    Higher education has to come to grips with this as well. The model of $30,000 per student per year with cost increases exceeding inflation for almost every year during the past 50 years indicates the industry model is not sustainable and must change. What better place to start than Las Vegas 2011?

    Similarly, K-12 is broken. The results are not impressive regardless of what numbers you use.

    There are opportunities out there for meaningful reform today. Don't let it pass.

  9. There are a few ways which the district can reduce expenses without sacrificing the education of our children.
    Eliminate bussing for high school students. The RTC could provide reduced fair for students. As our state ranks among the fattest population the exercise of walking or riding bikes to school would be beneficial.
    Allow for open enrollment, students should be allowed to attend any high school, with the proviso that if the school is not in their zone the school can refuse.
    Provide ESL classes for non English speaking students at a limited number of schools, i.e. four, one in the North, South, West and East areas of the district. These would accommodate all students from grades I thru twelve. Parents would be responsible for transportation.
    Privatize the sub service. The private schools all obtain their subs from private organizations. This would allow for, significant cost saving without reducing educational staff

  10. Why does anyone even begin to think Jones has any credibility?? Have they all forgotten this is the bureaucrat hired to run the district who wants to spend a cool million to have someone ELSE study the budget he's in charge of?

    This is about protecting their own jobs and the status quo masquerading as another lame "it's for the kids!" plea. They just can't seem to realize the public teat has run dry.

    "In the general course of human nature, a power over a man's subsistence amounts to a power over his will." -- Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper 79, 1787-88

  11. @killerB--yes, he wants to study the budget, but the last I heard he wants to use someone else's money to do so.

    Superintendent Jones has been at the helm for less than 12 months. The need for this request begs the question of why was no one at the CCSD able to supply the answer?

    If the Superintendent is to be blamed for anything, it is the awkward way he handled the issue (could have been better) and not for the desire to have this information.

  12. I continue to follow the bouncing ball and laugh my as$ off as the peanut gallery opines that "the system is broke! Therefore, it's GOOD to cut the funding; No sense paying money into a "broken system". That's throwing good money after bad, right?"
    Um, NO.

    First off, the "system" ain't what's broken.
    Yes, OF COURSE the "system" could improve. No question... improving educational processes can & should be a high priority. Yes, bad teachers NEED TO BE RELIEVED of their duties. Are there an "alarming number" of these "bad teachers"? Absolutely NOT.
    The truth is, MOST EDUCATORS are hard-working, dedicated professionals who get up every day and go to work and do a fine, fine job with reasonable success allowing for what they have to work with.

    You've got to REASONABLY FUND EDUCATION.
    Nevada DOES NOT.
    How would you KNOW that more dollars, targeted in the right areas, won't help? YOU'VE NEVER TRIED IT!
    Nevada is IN THE TOILET when it comes to funding education. From Head Start to Continuing Ed, Nevada DOES NOT MEASURE UP, financially, with the rest of the country, excluding Somalia-like outposts like Mississippi, and it NEVER HAS!
    Comparisons to Washington, D.C., and it's highly-funded, low-outcome educational system as an argument for not properly funding education in Nevada are alarmingly myopic. D.C. has some parallels to Nevada, but it's like arguing that 2 terrible sports teams can be fixed with the EXACT SAME FIX... One team that has a high payroll and underperforming players might need a new Manager. Another team may have a low payroll, some great young talent and a respected Manager, but needs MO' MONEY to attract ACTUAL TALENT to win games on a regular basis. You are arguing apples & oranges.
    Nevada is not in a position to cut ANYTHING from Education, because they haven't ever properly FUNDED it to begin with! Arguing that "more money is like throwing it down a black hole", in Nevada's case, is A BIG...FREAKING...JOKE. There IS NO BLACK HOLE! You've never DUG THAT DEEP!
    You dug a shallow grave out of laziness, threw the body in, and covered it up just enough so it wasn't blatantly obvious to casual passers-by, dusted off your hands and walked away, hoping no one would notice until the Vultures have had their dinner.
    NO ONE pays for a Kia and gets a Mercedes.

  13. @gmag39--a system wich graduates about one-half of its students is broke. Additionally, it is questionable how many of those that graduate are prepared for what follows. Is there anyone out there that thinks the k-12 system is adequate?

  14. A couple of casino execs offer some advise to higher education and some people get bent out of shape.

    The education guys could choose to not to follow this advice.

  15. Turrialba...
    Do me a favor.
    Go to France or Germany, or a quaint spot like MONACO, with 5 kids that you can't afford. Foist yourselves unto the populous & their educational system. DEMAND SERVICES! Bring millions of your "compadres"! Demand that YOU ALL be SERVED! SWAMP THE SYSTEM with your little entourage! Make sure y'all move around at your leasure; don't allow ANY ONE SCHOOL, or ANY ONE DISTRICT to feel your party's presence... NO, MAN! Move about! That way, no one will get a handle on your needs and the services you require, though they will spend PLENTY attempting to do so, as they NEED YOU TO SUCCEED IN ORDER TO LOOK LIKE THEY ARE WORKING HARD TO MAKE YOU A SUCCESS IN YOUR NEW COUNTRY, and that they are "DOING THEIR JOBS"! Do NOT try to integrate into the local population; NO! Speak your native tongue in the home, and demand your children do so too! And, it goes without saying; DO NOTHING TO HELP YOUR CHILDREN SUCCEED! After all, this new country of yours OWES IT TO YOU to do it for you! After you've SUCKED THE SYSTEM INTO SOMETHING AKIN TO BANKRUPTCY with your foolishness, you are encouraged to say to your new country's leaders...
    "Your system is BROKEN! What's WRONG WITH YOUR SYSTEM that MY CHILDREN ARE NOT HUGE SUCCESS STORIES? Hmmm??? FIX IT!!!

  16. A $1,000,000 to figure out whats wrong with a organization in which you are being paid $300,000 to lead?
    Lets out source the job to say India or China, which by far has better ed sytems with leaders paid far less.
    As a matter of fact, the CCSD woild probibly be better served to fire the entire administrative staff, and board members and start over.

  17. gmag you are on a roll today.

  18. Let's looks at this from another perspective:

    CCSD can take the "high road." CCSD doesn't need to build anything right now, so it can let its planning and constructions supervision staffs go. CCSD can "save" at least some of the money it spends on busing by only busing as required by state law. CCSD can probably let some teachers go without anyone noticing a loss of quality.

    On the other hand, the Community Colleges, Nevada State College, and the Universities, are essential if we are ever going to attract new industries to Nevada. Cutting there means we will continue to be a state dependent on two industries, mining and "gaming". Mining doesn't employ many people and, it appears pays only what it chooses to pay because the state can't afford or won't pay auditors to audit the mines' tax returns. Gaming is the biggest employer, and pays its taxes, but faces a number of challenges to future expansion in Nevada. Cuts to "higher" education, once made, will crimp Nevada's economic growth for a long, long time in the future.

  19. I'm enjoying the tranquility you create Turrialba...

  20. Going to casino execs and complaining about your relatively paltry revenue declines wasn't a wise move... http://www.thewesternwrangler.com/2011/0...

  21. Shannon,
    Because "at the end of the day", as they say,
    THEY HOLD ALL THE CARDS!

    It's like meeting with "The Godfather"!

  22. Hey Joe...
    I can appreciate your sentiments!
    I agree wholeheartedly that Ed needs a tuneup.
    You STILL can't get parts for a Mercedes with a Kia budget. It just doesn't run.
    And, for what YOU envision? An honest to God hands-on, practical learning experience? A WONDERFUL plan, but...
    Nevader would never.

  23. Open Range,

    Profit is just the difference between revenue and expenditure, even non profits technically have a profit as UNLV and UNR don't spend every dime they take in. The difference between for profit and non profit is simply how they use the profits. For profits can redistribute profits to shareholders non profits cannot. But both technically have profits.

    That said, NSHE sees revenues rise from 2007 through 2009 before declining. Meanwhile gaming sees sharp declines in wins in 2007 and 2008 while remaining flat in 2009 and 2010. Looking at just the sands investor relations info I see they posted a profit in Las Vegas of $44 million in 4qtr 2010 but had a loss in 4qtr 2009 so I'm betting they had more than a few quarters of $0 in profits while revenue also declined....

    http://investor.lasvegassands.com/releas...

  24. Yup losses in both 2009 and 2008 http://files.shareholder.com/downloads/A...

    I'd put money on other casinos being in a similar boat...

  25. What this "Strip executive" does not understand is that if these draconian, unprecedented cuts happen in ways that eliminate 12-14 departments, 33 programs, 320+ faculty, including many who have spent years building UNLV; plus similar eliminations at UNR and in the Community College system; then the whole NSHE will become like the Nevada Test site: radioactive for 50 years.

    There will be no "rebuilding" possible in our lifetimes. No sane professor or even recent Ph.D. anywhere in the country will take the risk to come to Nevada. The system will be so dismantled as to be, in effect, destroyed.

  26. UNLV is a doctoral-degree-granting institution of 28,000 students and 3,300 faculty and staff. Founded in 1957, the university offers more than 220 undergraduate, master's, and doctoral degree programs.

    So tell me professor how cutting 10 percent will result in a system so dismantled as to be, in effect, destroyed?

    Really Professor Unger, you overstate your case.

  27. Joe...
    We're getting pretty far afield here, pardon the pun;
    But oh! Would the urchins have fun!!!
    Try corralling 35 or 40 of em' in a smallish CCSD classroom and keep their rapt attention.
    How many more do you suppose we can cram in there under desks?
    I believe we are about to find out.
    "Turn out the lights"...

  28. Turrialba,
    With all due respect, I dispute your math.
    Vehemently.
    You have been paying attention the past 2 years, correct?

  29. My math? The information is from the UNLV website. We are retrenching. We have to save what we can and nurture it with the resources we have. Too many resources are spread way too thin. This is called focusing the mission. The place grew way too fast and now the price is contraction. UNLV is not the first university to face this and it will come through it. This is about long-term survival.

    Even if taxes are raised, higher education would likely only get pennies on the dollar. Human services and K-12 are probably in line in front of it.

  30. The cuts in state funding are 17.9 %, not 10%. So let's get our facts straight, please.

    Recently, an MSN web news site featured NSHE's budget cuts. You have no idea what's going on in terms of damage to Nevada's national reputation just because of this. Letting go tenured professors as planned will so undermine the credibility of NSHE contracts that no potential job candidate will believe in what they say. In this sense, the capacity to hire, and so "rebuild" will be permanently damaged, and programs eliminated will not be able to be rebuilt (again, it takes 20 years to build a department; 5-10 years to build a program, and it takes a lot of seed money to build infrastructure first).

    I'm typing fast, am very busy, so please don't accuse me of misspellings when there may be typos.

    Important here is to get on to solutions. How about we all agree that not sunsetting the 2009 tax fix will preserve enough infrastructure not only in higher ed, but in K-12, and in other necessary state programs (such as providing home care for destitute senior citizens; and medications for the impoverished mentally ill; and on and on) so as to be able to absorb, over time, other cuts? Could you go that far?

    If this is a 10% cut in state funding, UNLV can absorb this with a great deal of pain (and higher tuition for the students, which is a bad thing in these hard times). Better would be to consolodate and merge Western Nevada Community College and Great Basin Community College; transfer and combine certain departments and prograns at UNR and UNLV; and be able to do this over some time (about 4 to 6 years). This would preserve the basic infrastructure of the institutions, rather than the decimations proposed.

    Can we agree on this possibility? Would this work as a rational solution to our state's budget woes?

  31. Actually Professor, my 10 percent was based on the number of faculty that would be reduced compared provided by you above as compared to total faculty and staff.

  32. correction to typo: please read as consolidate.

    On the fly here. Later.

  33. Professor the last time I suggested restoration of a large portion of the funding in return for long-term tuition and state funding caps, you called me names.

  34. I don't recall this exchange. But we sure have been passionate back and forth, both ways, and will no doubt be so again.

    Let's look for solutions? Can we do this? And help get our legislators to do this?

    Can't stay. Must get to appointment. To be continued.

  35. For those who may not know what I am talking about, it is a funding formula that would link tuition and state aid to a predetermined index such as Consumer Prices or a labor index over a period of a decade or so. This would create the stability and cost certainty that students, taxpayers and some budget certainty and flexibility that faculty/administrators need to manage and plan.

    Not a perfect solution but a start. In my mind far better than the current approach This is a way to get from Point A to Point B.

  36. Professor Unger:

    To fund higher education, I would propose putting a broad based tax on energy BTU's consumed or something of that sort. This will discourage imports and keep money in the state. Money taken in will be put in an account, with reserves allowed. If the under collection occurs during a particularly year, the tax goes up and vice versa (with some limits).

    I would then reduce other taxes on businesses, and residents to make it revenue neutral. This may be a way to get the mines involved in ponying up some more money without the constitutional hassles.

    This is how you get from Point A to Point B. This is sane and rational. It is equitable since it requires long-term commitments. It is a better tax than many of the existing taxes. It may pass ideological muster with the anti-tax and Chamber of Commerce crowds. It is linked to tuition and cost controls--it allows higher education a good bit of latitude in return

    Higher education must keep a 5-year rolling average equal to CPI--this would allow up years and down for costs and the reserves would absorb the both deficits and surpluses.

    It is just an idea.

  37. People have been too concerned with taxing the outputs of the mines; tax the inputs. Saves a lot of trouble for everyone.

  38. On taxes: a BTU tax might actually work, if it excludes gasoline. Gas taxes put a disproportionate burden on low-income workers, especially in Nevada. But such a tax on electricity and natural gas would be fair, as low-income residents consume less compared to higher-income residents. I've often proposed a similar "water use tax" for our state, to two former governors and at least half a dozen legislators from both political parties (and they all looked at me like a turnip that turned up in a bag of groceries by mistake).

    BTW: a big topic at international architecture and design conferences is water use for new buildings, including a "water use fee" that is surely coming in the hotel industry (the trade-off for guests would be to provide free Wi-Fi connections, which more guests are demanding in any case). But the real problem with either of these potential taxes is that both would have armies of lobbyists protecting special interests in Carson City (NV Energy, SW Gas; or the Las Vegas Valley Water District, and the major hotel corporations).

    Nevada suffers from having a very isolated capitol, where legislators grow increasingly remote from constituents and ever closer to the lobbyists, who fuel the Carson City economy like no other local industry (even worse, proportionally, than Washington, D. C.). Lobbyists are right this minute persuading our legislators everywhere to act not in the public interest but for the special interests. This includes very heated efforts to prevent certain tax increases, and to cut taxes for specialized industries and lay the burdens onto the middle class and low income citizens.

  39. Our Founding Fathers based their constitutional and democratic ideals, in part, on Jean Jacques Rousseau's "Social Contract" (1762). In this great treatise, Rousseau outlines a whole structure for democratic government, based on a hopeful vision that "the general will" of citizens as expressed by a vote will always lead to the public good. But he warns, in "Whether The General Will Is Fallible":

    "IT follows from what has gone before that the general will is always right and tends to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally correct. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what that is; the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and on such occasions only does it seem to will what is bad."

    (Skips paragraph)

    "It is therefore essential, if the general will is to be able to express itself, that there should be no partial society within the State, and that each citizen should think only his own thoughts: which was indeed the sublime and unique system established by the great Lycurgus. But if there are partial societies, it is best to have as many as possible and to prevent them from being unequal, as was done by Solon, Numa and Servius. These precautions are the only ones that can guarantee that the general will shall be always enlightened, and that the people shall in no way deceive itself." (Translation by C.D.H. Cole).

  40. My argument: many voters are deceiving themselves, led by special interests, in not pushing for a more diverse, stable tax base in Nevada. And currently: not allowing a "sunset" to the 2009 tax fix will at least preserve some of the structures for essential state services, including higher education. But Governor Sandoval is catering to both lobbyists and an ideology to "cut" this 2009 tax solution, which, without raising taxes (without breaking his campaign promise) could add $700 million to fill about one-third (or more) of our state's budget hole.

    Let's agree that dismantling vital infrastructure in our state in favor of this "sunset" is the wrong thing to do at this time. Let's write and call our legislators to let the general will be known that we do not wish to live in a state which will be that broken afterwards, a state with low-income senior citizens living in their own excrement; with abused children dumped back into abusive homes; with Medicaid recipients left to die in the streets still searching for a doctor to take the lower fees; and with such a decimated K-12 and higher education system.

    About tuition: I for one would be all in favor of a "cap" on tuition raises pegged to the state inflation rate. But I'd be in favor of this only if banks are kept out of the equation, and an expanded system of government loans to students were put in place. Otherwise, student loans would become just one more profit source for quasi-criminal banks, adding an additional and unnecessary expense to students.

  41. In fact, I've argued for lower tuition for students consistently, to be paid for by a special set of new taxes, maintaining that highly educated citizens are far more valuable to the future of our economy than under-educated workers; also, to remain competitive with countries that subsidize a much greater share of higher education costs, such as: Germany (almost free tuition); Japan (about $4,500 per year); and China (about $1,200-1500 per year); and on and on.

    But this is a pipe dream in a society dominated by a "no new taxes" ideology that views government as having no responsibility to provide any service whatsoever to citizens, and ultra right-wingers who would rather see a dog-eat-dog, for-profit everything that would be a grand experiment in Social Darwinism not seen since the deplorable living standards and conditions for most people not seen since the Industrial Revolution.

    They may get their way (Governor Sandoval might get his way) but I don't believe for one minute that many aside from the rich would want to live in the broken society that will result. My best hope: that we can keep government loans to students intact; that the NSHE can raise tuition as little as possible and still survive; that the 2009 tax fix will not be allowed to "sunset".

    The NSHE will downsize another 10%-12% on top of the 27% it has already cut in state funded budgets. Then and only then will there be enough infrastructure left in the system to be able to reform itself effectively, and even then it will be a stretch and a struggle for all to fulfill its core mission of educating and preparing students in the new century.

  42. I agree that gasoline is off the table for a BTU tax. It is too complicated in terms of equity and the there are just problems with the fact that people are using less gasoline and that means few revenues for highways.

  43. Instead of general fund, we should probably call the parking spot for the BTU tax revenues--the higher education trust and thereby take it out of general revenues.

    The way this works is that taxpayer and tuition are capped at inflation; higher education gets funding certainty. If you add a program, then you either have to fit it under the cap (economize-cut a program) and/or find some long-term solution to fund a program.

    To be clear, this is not a panacea for higher education. It would create some problems and distortions (focus on lower cost programs and this could lead to larger classes)and could constrain enrollment. This is up to the leadership in higher education to address these issues. Not necessarily easy, but this is why we have leaders.

    It does address the challenges that I think are the most critical at this point based on what I have read here and my own opinions.

    And now off to this morning's news.....

  44. Joe--nothing imaginative about it at all.

    Indeed, it gets a couple people, Professor Unger and myself, a little closer to agreeing on something we have been disagreeing about for weeks now. He gets what he needs and I get what I need out of the deal. He needs funding stability and certainty and I need cost certainty. Whether this is a paradigm shift that the Regent writes of in another column on the OpEd page remains to be seen.

    The BTU is something where a tax infrastructure exists to a certain extent--electricity, natural gas consumption are measured. The service taxes that are being kicked around present a challenge in this area.

    It reduces Nevada's reliance on some of the traditional revenue streams.

    It would promote efficiency to an extent. As you know better than most of us the BTU is the common denominator for understanding energy use and energy efficiency. People will be able to make more informed choices (I hope).

    It does have the potential to bring tie together some disparate strands of public policy debate.

    Whether people buy into this particular option is a matter for discussion and debate. In my opinion, these are factors that should be considered in any revenue solutions.

  45. Joe:

    While conceptually appealing, I am not sure about the distributional effect of such a tax. I just haven't thought about it. I know we all use energy. In a revenue neutral world, one would ratchet down other taxes in response to a BTU tax.

    A second, but highly related item is the political calculus. I just don't know about how salable it is. By salable, I mean politically acceptable to a broad range enough range of constituencies that could get behind the idea. I haven't a clue.

    As I said above, the concept I floated contains elements that I think should be part of a solution that will require a coalition to happen. This is one or many possible solutions.

  46. FYI: UNLV and CSN have been operating under "add a program, must cut a program elsewhere" for the last three budget cycles (5 years). (In the ed trade, this is called "revenue neutral"). That policy planning for the equation is already in place.

  47. Professor:

    I want to make sure I did not misrepresent your position. If I understand what you need at this point in time is a decent budget outcome this time and not be back next time having this same discussion (funding predictability and stability going forward). Is this correct?

  48. What has been needed for the 20 years I've worked in the NSHE system is budget stability. But the problem goes far deeper than budget alone.

    The whacky and unique in the nation state funding formula for UNR and UNLV has been tied to growth, growth, growth: growing enrollments means more state funding, which feeds needs for growing enrollments, which creates an overgrowth cycle. The basic funding formula, including the injustice of the state general fund taking huge amounts off the top from out of state tuition paying students, and so fixed on rewarding growth only, must be changed.

    Movements have been happening along these lines even before the current budget crisis, differential tuition being one of these; and seeking ways that UNLV can be funded more on a parity with UNR. Stable budgets in with a top to bottom reform of the way the legislature funds higher education would help our universities to put focus on achieving an optimal size, and on increasing the striving for excellence across the boards. Would that this could happen.

    Must run now. Can't take time to post more until evening. Thanks!

  49. Nevada is not the only state that collects tuition at the state level and then hands it back to the university. I can't remember which other states but I know we're not the only one.

    There may be an advantage to this in that, unlike most states, our tuition rates grow slower, which is generally good because most universities divert newly raised tuition money away from actual education and research.

    That said, has anyone who claims we've been cutting the budget for years actually seen the universities budget? Can you share it with us? I'm highly skeptical of the "official" figures claimed by some NSHE and UNLV leaders and I, and others, have shown them to be overstated figures.