CARSON CITY -- Nearly 1,000 college students from across the state rallied in the snow in front of the Capitol and Legislative Building on Monday to protest Gov. Brian Sandoval's plan to cut state support to higher education by more than $160 million.
University of Nevada, Reno band members played "Home Means Nevada." Students hoisted dozens of placards calling for the end of cuts, and protesters shouted slogans such as "Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, These Budget Cuts Have Got To Go" in a rally that lasted more than four hours.
One Western Nevada College student, Layrie Corley of Carson City, even held a "Hey it's OK, I can always be a prostitute" sign and said legislators and Sandoval have the power to decide her future.
Sandoval's message to the students was simple: Thanks for coming, but no thanks to more taxes.
"This is a tough time," Sandoval told nine student leaders he met with in his office. "There are companies that have laid off hundreds of workers. With new taxes, they might not stay in business."
The students were well-behaved and attentive when they crowded into the Legislative Building to attend hearings and watch the floor sessions of the Senate and Assembly.
Legislative Police Chief Robert Milby estimated the crowd at 900, making it the largest student demonstration in Carson City in state history. That attendance falls short of a Tea Party rally two years ago that attracted 1,500.
Historian Guy Rocha said it was the most people to show up on Capitol grounds since 1903 when 7,000 people came to see President Theodore Roosevelt.
SANDOVAL SENDS STRONG SIGNAL
Sandoval congratulated the students for coming up with a plan to bail out education, something he said the legislators themselves haven't done.
The students want to continue the $700 million to $800 million temporary tax increases approved in 2009 that will expire June 30.
Those taxes include a 0.35 percentage point increase in the sales tax rate, car registration fee increases and a near doubling of the payroll taxes paid by businesses.
The governor said he pledged not to continue the temporary taxes in his campaign and won't budge now.
"Raising taxes on business now would be very detrimental to our economy," he told the students.
Mike Torres, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas student, told Sandoval it is "unfair" not to have tax proposals on the table. He also said legislators must put partisan differences aside and work on a compromise that protects higher and public education.
"It's not just one cut, but three years of cuts," said Kyle Davis, the president of UNLV's graduate student body. "This is our home, too."
DEMOCRATS SHOW STUDENTS SUPPORT
The students have Democrat support. More than a dozen Democratic legislators, but no Republican legislators, showed up at the rally.
Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, promised students that "this time will be different" and predicted the Senate will not pass Sandoval's budget.
He said the Legislature will not adjourn until passing a "balanced budget that protects education."
In his budget, Sandoval wants to reduce two-year state support to higher education by $163 million, from $558 million to $395 million. In the coming school year, support to higher education would drop by 16 percent, followed by a 29 percent drop in the 2012-13 school year.
Sen. Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, addressed the students both in Spanish and English and joked that it was the first time he had seen UNR Wolf Pack and UNLV Rebels students united on a single cause.
"You are not just students," added Assembly Education Chairman David Bobzien, D-Reno. "You are workers. You are taxpayers. You are voters."
"Apathy is gone," said Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas.
While Republicans were absent from the rally, Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said in an interview that Assembly Republicans might vote to continue the temporary tax increases if Democrats will support collective bargaining reform, with retirement system and other changes.
But Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, said the students were unconvincing.
"This doesn't really influence me and my decision-making, and they are sorely mistaken if they think it does," Roberson said.
He said truly needy students will continue to get help going to school.
"Financial aid is available for whose who can't afford to pay for higher education," Roberson said. "The fact is, we have a finite amount of money."
GOP UNITED AGAINST TAX INCREASES
At it stands now, all 10 Senate Republicans are united against tax increases. Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, also opposes tax increases. That means at least four senators must change their positions for tax proponents to have the 14 votes needed to pass taxes and override a Sandoval veto.
In the Assembly, at least two Republicans would have to support tax increases to gather the veto-proof 28 votes to pass taxes.
Carole Villardo, president of the Nevada Taxpayers Association, said even if the Legislature and governor approve increased taxes on mining and other companies, it wouldn't be enough to offset the proposed cuts to education and social services.
It wasn't immediately known how much revenue bills introduced Monday by Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce, D-Las Vegas, to tax mining, services and businesses would produce.
Democrats contend Sandoval's proposed two-year $5.8 billion budget is as much as $2.5 billion short of the state's real needs.
"The problem is, there is a point of reality with revenue," Villardo said. "Even if you created new taxes, do you really think you can generate enough revenue to cover everything that everybody wants to hold harmless? I don't."