Cuts to higher education budget unavoidable, Nevada lawmakers say

More than half of all the tax money collected by the state of Nevada goes toward public education.

The state is going to take in close to $900 million less in the next 16 months than officials had budgeted for.

So, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, told a crowd of higher education constituents Thursday, there is no way legislators can avoid cuts to education.

How big the cut is going to be, and how badly it will hurt the state's system of colleges and universities, was the subject of a hearing before the Legislature's Interim Finance Committee.

First up was Dan Klaich, the system's chancellor. In a shortened version of a presentation he gave to the system's governing Board of Regents earlier in the week, Klaich laid out several ways the system could save enough money to cover a 22 percent shortfall in revenue.

It could close entire colleges, or impose 1,290 layoffs, or 20 percent pay cuts across the board, or raise tuition and fees by 48 percent. He was careful to say that the board was unlikely to do anything so drastic, but that he was using the numbers to make a point.

He said a cut that large -- it would equate to $37 million for the rest of this fiscal year and $110 million for the next one --would put the system back where it was in 2002 financially. But the system has 20,000 more students now than it did then, he said. The numbers do not work.

"Higher education in Nevada is changing," he said. "It's changing in 2010, and it's changing for the worse."

He pushed for tax increases, as others within higher education circles have done. They say cutting the system too much would have long-term consequences for education and business in Nevada that will take years to recover from.

"I think the cure is worse than the disease," he said of massive cuts. "I think what is going to occur is not going to solve our problem. It's going to make our problem worse."

Legislators had a few questions.

Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, said he and others legislators have received many complaints about the way the higher ed system handled state-mandated furloughs last year. All state employees were forced to take one unpaid day off per month.

But not all university employees are, technically, state employees. Lower level employees, such as maintenance workers, took the furloughs.

Professors and professional staffers are system employees. Because of contracts that forbid the system from cutting their pay, they were not forced to take furloughs, though regents did formally notify them that they likely would be forced to in the second year.

Add to that the complication that some professors are not paid at all by the state. Their salaries are covered by research grants, so forcing them to take furloughs would not save Nevada any money.

To further complicate matters, pay cuts or furloughs couldn't be imposed without the system declaring financial exigency, akin to bankruptcy, which officials say would be a public relations and recruiting disaster for the state's colleges and universities.

Klaich acknowledged how complicated the situation was and said furloughs had been a failure for the higher ed system.

Forced by Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, to choose between furloughs and an unnamed "alternative," Klaich reluctantly sided against furloughs.

"If you want me to say the word: It's pay cut. There it is," Klaich said.

There also were questions about university faculty teaching workload versus research, which is a frequent topic of discussion in the public when it comes to higher education and budget cuts. Klaich said study after study has shown faculty in Nevada meet or exceed national standards when it comes to workload.

To further add to that, UNLV President Neal Smatresk said research is not only vital, it is financially beneficial. He said a science professor, for example, could bring in a $3 million grant and pay not only his own salary with it, but buy the university new equipment, pay a few graduate and undergraduate students, and provide a unique, real-world educational opportunity for those students.

He said the average professor's workload at UNLV has increased 21 percent since 2006, about when all the budget cutting began.

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@review or 702-383-0307.