Senate mulls cuts to higher education

Discussion surrounding college cuts remained at a standstill Friday as legislators voted along party lines after hashing out whether the university system should contemplate campus closures along with staff and program cutbacks that some Democrats said would cause irreversible damage.

"We've been digging with a shovel," said Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno. "With this budget, we're digging with a backhoe."

The Senate and the Assembly separately reviewed several proposals aimed at tackling the $162 million in reductions Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed for the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Assembly Republicans took non-binding votes in favor of the funding reduction, proposed layoffs and allowing a property tax diversion in Clark and Washoe counties to expire. Some Republicans broke rank on how those cuts should look, showing distaste for tuition hikes and campus closures.

In the end, the Legislature will decide how much money the system gets, and the Board of Regents will decide which programs and services are cut.

Higher education officials said trying to meet the governor's spending cuts without closing campuses would mean eliminating 2,313 courses and 46 academic degree programs in fiscal year 2012, a move that would reduce enrollment by more than 4,700 students.

Chancellor Daniel Klaich said such cuts would force the system to turn away students in greater numbers than the system has ever had to in the past.

"I'm afraid they won't be able to break cycle of poverty," Klaich said. "It kills me to say that."

The cuts-only proposal also includes raising tuition and fees by 13 percent for each year in the next biennium. For an in-state student, that would bring the annual cost to approximately $1,500 per year.

Klaich estimated that the fee and tuition increases will garner the state between $40 million and $50 million in revenue, and the amount depends on how many students may be alienated by the cost increase.

Students will leave Nevada schools based less on the cost of the programs and more on the perceived value of their education, according to research by a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, economics professor presented at an earlier hearing.

"The perceived value is being impacted by this budget," said Assembly Majority Leader Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas.

Sandoval's staff said that while the cuts are difficult, Nevada's tuition and fees are still well below the median of schools in 15 western states. Tuition accounts for 27 percent of the system's revenue, and the rest comes from taxpayers, according to Heidi Gansert, the governor's chief of staff.

Shuttering or merging programs is a worst-case scenario, Klaich said, and would save the system just over $12 million.

He floated a third option that includes higher fees and tuition, reducing operating expenses and a degree of state support. The chancellor also asked that the current cuts be evenly distributed over the next two years so as to minimize the damage and create a smoother transition.

Klaich, along with members of the Chancellor's Business Roundtable, cautioned the Senate about making cuts that are so deep they will make recovery difficult.

"These cuts will result in an entirely new model of higher education in this state - one we don't want now or in the future," he said.

Philip Satre, chairman of the board of International Gaming Technology, said the business community benefits from a healthy, productive higher education system.

Many businesses, he said, "recognize that there may have to be a broad-based business tax that brings this back up to a level of support that sustains these universities."

Sandoval has said he will veto any bills that include a tax increase. While Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, they do not have enough votes to override a veto and would need Republican buy-in to pass a tax.

A similar meeting Tuesday with all Assembly members led to Republicans firmly supporting the governor's recommended budget on K-12 education cuts.

Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said there have been no new negotiations between the parties that might warm Republicans to vote for taxes.

Two more large group hearings have been scheduled, and "I don't see that anything's going to change," he said.


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