Education first?

Jim Gibbons said his ballot measure would keep schools from being held hostage at the legislature. It didn’t.

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, a key figure in a confrontation between Senate and Assembly over education funding, took a break from a committee hearing for coffee and listened to a pitch from lobbyist Larry Struve.

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, a key figure in a confrontation between Senate and Assembly over education funding, took a break from a committee hearing for coffee and listened to a pitch from lobbyist Larry Struve.

Photo By Dennis Myers

A dispute between the Assembly and Senate held up the state’s higher education budget for several days as the Nevada Legislature inched toward an end of its 2007 session.

The Assembly’s budget committee carved $25.7 million out of the state higher education budget on May 3, angering Senate budget chair William Raggio, and the cuts have been a bone of contention ever since. These cuts were made after $11 million in cuts made by Gov. Jim Gibbons.

“Nevada’s higher education funding is being held hostage,” said Nevada Faculty Alliance lobbyist James Richardson.

Last week and this week, there were long negotiating sessions by what one lobbyist called the “core group” of members of the two budget committees in an effort to break the logjam. They included Assemblymembers Morse Arberry, Barbara Buckley, Sheila Leslie and Heidi Gansert, Sens. William Raggio and Randolph Townsend and others. Limiting the number of participants helped avoid open meeting requirements.

The clash is reminiscent of the 2003 deadlock in which Democrats held up education spending to force approval of the tax program proposed by Gov. Kenny Guinn. That maneuver prompted Jim and Dawn Gibbons to propose an “education first” initiative petition that was supposed to prevent education funding from being held hostage. It was subsequently approved by voters. The initiative requires that education be funded before other budgets. That part of the measure, too, has not functioned as intended. In fact, education will be the last major matter settled in the legislative session and may extend into a special session.

All-day kindergarten eyed
Among items cut by the Assembly were $5.2 million in merit pay, proposed funding for nonprofit groups, and $7 million for Gibbons’ proposed “workforce development” program.

The amount cut by the Assembly raised suspicions because it is approximately the amount Democrats had been seeking for all-day kindergarten, a program that has been in trouble since revenue projections for sales and business taxes in the next two years came in lower than hoped.

Richardson said, “I’ve heard two reasons given for the cuts in higher education. One is that the Assembly is seeking leverage to use against the Senate. The other is that they’re planning to use the money saved for K-through-12 [kindergarten through 12th grade].” He pointed to news reports that placed all-day kindergarten at the center of the dispute.

Speaker Buckley, however, said nothing should be read into the fact that the two amounts are more or less the same.

“No, because again, the meetings to discuss closing the education budgets are focusing on career and technical funding, money for the innovation and education funding … [and] teacher pay.”

That was difficult to confirm, however, since the meetings are going on behind closed doors, and it was assumed by many major players that the cuts were an effort to come up with the money for all-day.

There has been some talk all session that the higher ed budget would be tapped for more money for the elementary/secondary budgets. Nevada Taxpayers Association lobbyist Carole Vilardo said she heard early on during this legislative session that “K-through-12 had not received anywhere near the level of funding increases that the university system has received over the last few sessions and this year, you know, they were going—they wanted that difference made up.”

But Vilardo also heard that the higher ed cuts were being made to divert money to the prison system. “It was the university that was going to be funding prisons with some residual going into all-day kindergarten.”

Buckley objected to the arguments that funding was being held hostage.

“I don’t think it’s true. … I also think it’s sad that the same people that are complaining about higher ed aren’t also complaining about K-through-12. Education in general shouldn’t be shortchanged. There’s a link between them. Part of the problem the university is having is their enrollment’s down. Well, their enrollment’s going to be down unless we improve things in K-through-12. There is a nexus.”

Lobbyists representing different segments of Nevada education found themselves uncomfortably pitted against each other, a problem exacerbated by the closed sessions. With members of the public unable to see what was going on in the sessions, rumors became coin of the realm and suspicions rose. Buckley resisted the notion that elementary/secondary schools and higher education were being forced to oppose each other, but her evidence for that assertion was what is happening out of public view in the hidden discussions.

“I really don’t see it as a university versus K-through-12 dispute,” she said. “Being in the meetings, I see it as a way to try to get more money for both—additional funds for K-through-12 as the governor only funded $13 million in new money [from the 2005-2007 budget] over the biennium and for their improvements to the university system.”

Assembly Democrats in the budget committee, if they have the support of their caucus, are facing Senate Democrats and Republicans who seem to be unified in opposing the Assembly cuts. GOP assemblymembers also want the higher education money restored.

Thinking outside the cage
One of the things that could help break the deadlock is enactment of prison and parole changes that could free up almost a third of planned prison spending increases. Facing a 60 percent-plus jump in the prison population over the next decade, lawmakers have been examining reducing the number of inmates held for non-violent crimes, beefing up less expensive substance abuse programs, and doing something about “mandatory minimum” sentencing laws. Right now, the state prison population is more than a thousand inmates over budget.

Drug war inmates make up most of the prison population, but the state has been reducing its commitment to programs for drug inmates once they’re released, fueling recidivism. Gov. Gibbons has proposed an increase of $3.7 million.

But the savings to be realized from prison changes have taken on a mystical aspect for many, and some officials, such as Assemblymember David Parks, warned against relying on extravagant estimates of the money that will be realized from the changes. A Senate/Assembly committee co-chaired by Parks last week approved a $600 million prison budget that assumes some of those savings (from increasing good-time credits and making them retroactive, making early outs possible) but then plows those savings not into public education but into additional parole officers to monitor released prisoners.

Vilardo, a recognized expert on government finance, said she suspects that the real gains from prison changes will be long-term, not so much in the next biennium (the Nevada Legislature, which meets only every other year, must pass two-year budgets). She said that in New York, which in 1994 made a sweeping shift away from punitive criminal laws—including changes in the notorious Rockefeller drug laws—the payoff took more than a decade.

“It literally has taken ’til this year to have all those reforms come into place at a point where the governor is saying, ‘We can close 12 prisons,’ because their prison population is the lowest it has been, and their recidivism [repeat offenses] has gone down tremendously. … But it has taken this long to bear fruit,” Vilardo said.

Some Nevada education leaders were exasperated that, because of poor news coverage, the budget confrontation was taking place largely out of public view, removing lawmakers from public pressure. Only one daily television news operation, KLAS in Las Vegas, has a full-time crew at the legislature this year, and most print reporters missed the stalemate at first. Richardson said only the Nevada Appeal’s Geoff Dornan and Cy Ryan at the Las Vegas Sun knew what was going on in the closed meetings and wrote about it. Those reports did not attract enough attention to get the issue before most of the public, though some other print sources started chasing the story the day after the Dornan/Ryan pieces appeared. Television coverage has been mostly absent.

Dornan reported that one of the things making the disagreement over higher education funding politically sensitive is that some powerful figures, like Larry Ruvo of Southern Wine and Spirits and developer Harvey Whittemore, have personal interests in the non-profit funding. The Lou Ruvo Brain Institute has 10 lobbyists registered in Carson City, including some of the best known-and most capable such as Pete Ernaut, Billy Vassilliadis and Denice Miller.

The extended talks led veteran lobbyists to believe that the legislative session will have to extend into a special session, which would enhance Gibbons’ power. In Nevada, governors control the agendas of special sessions. But at press time, Assemblymember Gansert said the negotiations were making substantial progress.