Nevada’s higher education system braces for more cuts as the state tries to attract energy development
As state revenues continue their seemingly unending decline, there’s apprehension on the hill—the hill on which sits the University of Nevada, Reno and the headquarters office for the state’s higher education system.
“If it’s a statement of priorities that no legislator’s speaking up and saying ‘Wait, we’ve hit higher education hard enough …’” said UNR faculty leader James Richardson, letting the thought dwindle without completing the sentence. “I’m trying to avoid being depressed.”
The silence from the legislators in the wake of Gov. Jim Gibbons’ call for cuts has been pronounced.
Gibbons initially asked for 1.4 percent and 3 percent cuts, then raised that to 6 percent, 8 percent and 10 percent. He is considering calling the Nevada Legislature into session to repeal a state law in order to qualify the state for additional elementary and secondary education funding, and to make cuts in state agency spending.
UNR President Milton Glick declined to prepare such budget cutting plans and told administrators not to do so until the Nevada Board of Regents, which governs the higher education system, is heard from. Under the Nevada Constitution, the Nevada Board of Regents is in effect a fourth branch of government, standing upheld by the Nevada Supreme Court, which ruled in 1948 that the regents hold “exclusive executive and administrative control” of the campuses. While that still puts the higher education system under the fiscal control of the legislature, the governor has limited authority over it.
Richardson, who edits the newspaper of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, this month published a table taken from a September report issued by the Gibbons administration for a small business “summit.” The table shows the percentage by which various sectors of state government have been cut from the 2007-2009 biennium to the current 2009-2011 biennium. Higher education leads the list, having lost just under one fourth of its funding—24 percent. By comparison, commerce and industry-related agencies lost 18.6 percent and administrative and financial agencies lost 19.4 percent. Elected officials saw cuts of 1.5 percent. And kindergarten through 12th grade received just over a 10 percent increase, mostly because local contract obligations required the legislature to provide that level of funding.
Richardson published the table because, he said, few policymakers seem to remember that higher education in the state got hurt the most in budget cutting earlier in the recession.
“The thing that’s most irritating to me … is that everybody seems to be suffering from collective amnesia about what cuts have already been rendered against various agencies and entities. … We got hit the hardest but nobody’s saying, ‘We’re going to hit these other agencies first and get back to you only in emergencies because you gave at the office.’ That’s not happening.”
Nevada higher education chancellor Dan Klaich had the same thing in mind when he sent a Dec. 8 letter to the governor. Klaich was more diplomatic than his predecessor Jim Rogers, but his letter was still emphatic.
“I know you will keep in mind that no major agency budget took a larger and more disproportionate cut than did the [Nevada System of Higher Education] last session,” Klaich wrote. “In fact, at least one major state agency budget increased above last biennium’s levels, and all others absorbed smaller cuts than did [higher education].”
Contracts are also at issue for the higher education system.
“We are halfway through our fiscal year, thereby effectively doubling the effect of any suggested cut,” Klaich wrote. “Contracts are executed for the year, class schedules are published, registration is largely complete, and we have accepted students’ fees. For these reasons, an operating budget reduction at this time is virtually impossible to implement.”
Many state legislators are skeptical that a special session is needed. The repeal of the education law will bring money that can only be used for elementary and secondary education, which is one part of the budget that got an increase from the last legislature. And repealing the law, which prohibits the use of student performance in evaluating teachers, would not, by itself, necessarily make the state eligible for the funds, according to Washoe County Sen. William Raggio, who said there are other criteria for the state to qualify for the federal money, some of which the state likely could not meet. He produced a list of the criteria, which included “adopting internationally benchmarked standards and assessments” and “building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals in how they can improve their practices,” among others. It also requires the state to participate “in a consortium of states [that] includes a significant number of states.” Though Raggio supports repealing the evaluation law, he’s not sure that it needs to be done in a special session, since the state is not likely to qualify for the federal money anytime soon.
As for the legislators being called into special session to make cuts, the lawmakers say they anticipated that and provided for a $160 million line of credit that Gibbons can use in order to avoid the special session. In fact, it is built into the budget Gibbons himself signed. The governor’s office has said Gibbons does not want to put the state further into debt.
“We did balance the budget with that [credit line],” said Clark County Sen. Robert Coffin. “So we’ve already put it to use. The question is, should we just [use] it six months early?”
But Assemblymember Lynn Stewart of Clark County, a retired high school teacher, said, “If you borrow, you have to pay it back. You have to be careful about digging even a deeper hole.”
Coffin argues that not all spending is created equal, that it is more expensive to later rebuild programs than to keep them running now: “Well, I’d rather not tear down now.”
Raggio says Gibbons’ reluctance to use the line of credit is in contrast to his earlier behavior. He recalls that earlier this year the governor suggested that the lawmakers balance the budget by securitizing the state’s income from the tobacco settlement.
“What’s the difference?” Raggio asked. “He’s saying now, ‘Don’t use line of credit’? Well, those were [tobacco securitization] bonds you have to pay back.”
Raggio also noted that Gibbons used the $160 million line of credit in his original budget recommendations to the lawmakers in January.
“In the governor’s initial budget, he plugged in the $160 million,” Raggio said. The italics were in his tone of voice. He said Gibbons has had shifting positions on debt. “As you recall, he also put in $300 million in the room tax increase [into his budget recommendations] and then refused to sign it. C’mon.”
Coffin also said he believes the campuses should not be tapped for additional money for exactly the reason Richardson cited—the damage the system has already suffered.
“I don’t think we should have the same reduction in budgets again. … Some have already been hurt more than others,” Coffin said.
All of this is happening at a time when the legislature and governor want the campuses to play a role in helping the state evolve from dependency on a declining casino industry to energy research and development.
“Historically, we have emerged from economic challenges stronger through diversification,” Gibbons said in his January 2009 message to the Nevada Legislature. “We can do the same now by focusing on developing our bountiful renewable energy resources and becoming an energy exporting state. Nevada has the talent, expertise, resources.”
But the resources he cited were adjudged by many energy experts to be inadequate to the task, and as a result of the budget cuts they are becoming even less significant.
In his letter to the governor, Klaich wrote, “You have said over and over that we cannot tax our way out of this depression. It is just as true that we cannot cut our way to excellence in education”
Some players who have watched the struggle over budget cuts have said the governor seems poorly informed on some issues he deals with. Coffin said when he raised the issue of the line of credit with the governor, Gibbons seemed uncertain. “I don’t know if he realizes he has the loan authority, actually,” Coffin said.
Richardson said the governor’s actions seem to indicate he was not aware of the way the higher education system works in relation to the regents’ authority and the system’s contracts. “Well, it could certainly be interpreted that way. … I don’t understand it,” Richardson said.
from 2007-09 to 2009-11 in percentages
Elected officials -1.7
Higher education -24.0
Commerce and industry -18.8
Human services -0.1
Public safety -15.4
Special purpose -20.5