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January 28, 2015

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Chamber goes to the mountain: UNLV

Muhammad has gone to the mountain.

As the story goes, when Muhammad realized that Mount Safa either could not or would not come to him, his appropriate reaction was to go to the mountain to proclaim the greatness of God. That story has been retold in myriad ways, always as a punch line for what was thought an impossible or, at the very least, extremely difficult undertaking.

I invoked that thought when I was privileged to be among a group of distinguished visitors at UNLV on Wednesday.

The purpose of the early morning gathering was to give UNLV President Neal Smatresk and his colleagues, college deans and college students, the opportunity to tell guests what was really happening at UNLV in an up close and personal way. A meeting with this group of visitors was long overdue.

Let me explain. For years, although it seems forever, it has been a matter of community folklore that the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, the Nevada Development Authority and pro-business advocacy groups have uniformly and unhesitatingly maintained an anti-tax position that has permeated the halls of the Nevada Legislature and every other legislative body in the state. The result has been that continuous cries for help in the form of meaningful and stable revenue sources (taxes) have gone unheeded.

Instead, because the pro-business lobby has been so powerful, the best the Legislature, for example, could do was muster up the courage to cut budgets of state programs — especially those that serve the most needy among us — and leaving alone to count our “blessings” those of us who make and used to make substantial profits.

That has led to a rather uneasy coexistence between those who consume state tax dollars and those who refuse to pay them. The global economic meltdown that took us by surprise three years ago, coupled with increasing deficits at the state and local levels because tax receipts are plummeting, has created a need for revenue that can no longer be ignored.

As traditional allies of the new Republican philosophy that “taxes allow for big government so we should just starve the sucker,” chambers of commerce in this state have always been seen as protectors of the wealthy and oppressors of the working man. I know that sounds nuts because most chamber members are small-business owners who, by definition, are the little guys.

The bottom line of that unholy alliance is that taxes have remained low — among the lowest anywhere — and so has every quality of life determinant available. We are among the lowest — that means worst — of all the states in education, health care, standard of living and practically every measurement available to express an understanding of how and if Nevadans live a life of quality.

Oh, yes, did I mention we are among the lowest in terms of tax burdens? Maybe there is a connection.

Maybe there is because that is what will explain why the chamber types turned out in force at UNLV. They were eager to learn and understand what it is that UNLV is doing to advance the quality of life in Southern Nevada and, most important, eager to understand the vital connection between institutions of higher learning, the percentage of advanced degrees and the quality of the community.

What they learned was so much more. Smatresk planned that day well because the deans and some of the brightest and most articulate students in this country made it clear to those listening that UNLV can hold its own when it comes to educating tomorrow’s leaders.

They also explained in no uncertain terms what devastating cuts — the ones Gov. Brian Sandoval has announced he wants to implement at UNLV and, frankly, across the educational landscape — would do to the prospects of educating our way to a better future. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the governor’s plan to “cut, cut, cut” would devastate UNLV.

And that means, as most businesspeople could comprehend, that their businesses — present and future — would suffer as well. That is probably why the chamber made a most welcome and unprecedented statement recently that, with certain reforms that have been contemplated for a while, taxes should be on the table because education needs to be valued and enhanced, not diminished.

So what is with the mountain and Muhammad comment? That’s simple.

This community has always perceived the business types at the Chamber of Commerce as immutable objects that have failed constantly to show up at the table when taxes need to be discussed and revenue needs to be raised. Their actions have always been an automatic “no” regardless of what they said.

On the other hand, UNLV and other educational institutions have stubbornly put themselves in a position that could be seen as “entitled,” certainly not a stance inviting to those who want to help but who aren’t sure if that help is necessary. They have presented themselves as a mountain, unable or unwilling to move.

With the economic realities of the day hitting Las Vegas and everything in it as hard as it has, Smatresk’s reaction has been to embrace necessary reform, and use it to make educational objectives at UNLV that much clearer and that much more attainable.

But he cannot do it with cuts alone. He needs this community to invest in his vision for a stellar university, which is open to all and available as a partner in our 21st century growth.

One of the deans remarked Wednesday that he had been at UNLV for 21 years, and it was the first time he had seen a group from the Chamber of Commerce. His comment was telling. Whether or not it was accurate — certainly such a group could have been there without the dean’s knowledge — the significance was not lost.

Quality higher education is good for our community precisely because it is good for the community’s business. The business community came to UNLV to learn what is in its best interest. In short, those in search of a profit saw fit to go to the mountain of higher education.

It remains to be seen whether those people have finally seen the light.

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  1. The column concludes "It remains to be seen whether those people have finally seen the light."

    To whom does Mr. Greenspun refer?

  2. "That has led to a rather uneasy coexistence between those who consume state tax dollars and those who refuse to pay them. "

    How about those of us who pay the taxes Mr. Greenspun? An uneasy alliance between those who consume tax dollars and those who pay tax dollars.

    How about the fact that state appropriations for higher education increased 113% between 1998 and 2008 in this state? This was the second highest increase in the nation during this 10-year period.

    How about those people who do pay taxes in this state and have questions about pouring more into UNLV?

  3. Nothing like a cup of coffee to go with my morning rant at this silly column.

  4. etween fiscal year 1998 and fiscal year 2008, Louisiana increased its appropriations for
    higher education by 121% (in current dollars), the largest increase for any state (Center for the Study of Education Policy, 1999 and 2009). Nevada increased its appropriations by 113%, the second largest increase, followed by Wyoming (109%), Alabama (101%), and New Mexico (97%).

  5. PS. Good Morning Douglas--I sure you will have a response.

  6. I would guess none of the states listed for spending increases grew anywhere as much as Nevada during the period listed. Nevada primarily spent to keep up with growth and comparatively little for system improvement. The other states listed spent on improvement and are all considered to have better University systems than Nevada.

  7. Excellent opinion piece in contrast to the "talk radio rant" that relies on jingoism of a "no new taxes" mantra. Much of the "right wing talk radio businesses" have no substance: get rich quick work at home schemes, "herbal sex pills that don't work," credit monitoring outfits that the FTC takes action against, weight loss crap that doesn't work, and so on.

    Real businesses, Apple, GE, Microsoft, Starbucks, etc. are run by more liberal thinking people for the most part.

    All tea baggage people are on SSI Social Security or VA or work for hate talk radio stations.

  8. The socialist government in Utah (sarcasm) has seen fit to spend money on higher education, making them the 5th highest spending per capita, with 6 four year institutions, and they have a population similar to Nevada. Why? Because the Republicans in that state are business smart Republicans. The result, Utah has grown business as good as anyone. Just look at these results:

  9. Elsewhere in the Sun today I read an article that debated the motives of the Nevada Republicans as they salivate over the seat Senator Ensign is vacating. Someone said, "" proves he puts the interests of the republican party ahead of the financial health of Nevada."

    Well, DUH. That's the textbook definition of Republican.

  10. Chunky says:

    The people didn't elect the Chamber, Mr. Smatresk or Mr. Greenspun. The majority of our voting citizens made their choices based on what they want our elected officials to do regarding expenses, taxes and the direction of our budget.

    If the students and alumni are so proud of UNLV let them pay for it. If the admin and faculty are so dedicated and smart they need to figure out how to do less with more like the rest of the country.

    That's what Chunky thinks!

  11. No one cares what Chunky thinks.

  12. What is most amazing about the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce coming to UNLV is that its members have endorsed new taxes in order to sustain the vital infrastructure of higher education. This is a first in our history: that the Chamber recognizes that, for every $1 invested in UNLV, the economic return (including multiplier effects) is $5.80 in economic impact. Business people in Las Vegas are paying attention to this, and know that cutting higher education more than it has been cut already threatens our city's badly needed economic recovery.

    Why did our state double its investment in higher education 1998-2009? Because UNLV grew by about 10,000 students in eleven years! (And so did every other NSHE institution; plus two new ones were founded). No wonder spending increased! The state demanded growth.

    More importantly, the university established prestigious graduate programs and schools: a Law School (ranked), an expansion of the Hotel College (still ranked no 1 or no2); a Dental College; plus other very fine graduate degree programs (several of them now ranked in the top 10 or 20); these rankings vastly increase UNLV's reputation so that all its degrees now have become more valuable.

    In 1998, UNLV was still a subject for Jay Leno's jokes; by ten years later, UNLV had risen right up to achieving a Carnegie Research II ranking (a coveted milestone for any university). So: the state mandated our universities to grow, so as to keep up with the educational needs of the fastest growing state and boom-town city in the nation!

    Don't let any poster use percentage expenditure increases misleadingly. That our university grew like everything else should be no surprise. And remember: UNLV already absorbed a 27% cut in state funding 2007-2010; now the additional 17% mandated by Governor Sandoval is truly unsustainable, just can't be done without a declaration of exigency (bankruptcy). This would so destroy the reputation of our university that it would not be able to recover in our lifetimes.

    Does anyone think forcing our university into bankruptcy is right? Clearly, the business men and women of the Chamber don't think so. And more power to them that, wonder of wonders, the mountain may truly be on its way to moving!

  13. Brian Sandoval doesn't expect Mt. Safa to confront him directly, but if it came as far as the Reno City Limits, he would be satisfied.