University system regents kicked the governor's budget cuts to the curb and asked for more money Thursday, to the delight of college students who attended the morning meeting.
"I am afraid for the future of this state," said David Waterhouse, student president at the College of Southern Nevada.
The regents' decision was the latest volley in a war of words between the state's executive branch and those who govern higher education.
"Let's not kid ourselves," Regent James Dean Leavitt said. "This is high-stakes poker."
In the face of a severe economic downtown, Gov. Jim Gibbons has asked all state agencies to cut 14 percent from their proposed 2009-11 budgets. That is on top of 4 percent cuts that already have been made for the current year.
The 14-percent figure is based on revenue projections for the next two years. The Legislature will meet next year to pass a new state budget.
Since Gibbons asked for the cuts, higher education Chancellor Jim Rogers has grown more and more vocal in his criticism of the governor.
Rogers supports a broad-based business tax; Gibbons will not agree to any new taxes.
The situation escalated two weeks ago, when the regents gave initial approval to the new budget, which seeks a 9.5 percent increase and makes no mention of cuts.
Things continued to heat up last week, when Rogers sent Gibbons -- and the media -- a strongly worded letter that accused the governor of surreptitiously using the economic downtown to "unilaterally re-size government."
Gibbons fired back this week. He noted that 1,328 people in the state's higher education system make $100,000 a year or more. The governor called the salaries "one area where significant dollars can be saved."
He also criticized the regents for giving initial approval to a budget increase two weeks ago. Such action "seems to signify an intention to ignore the reality of the economic situation in Nevada," Gibbons said.
That is where things stood Thursday morning when the Board of Regents met at CSN's West Charleston Boulevard campus. Their only agenda items concerned the budget.
"This is a difficult issue," board Chairman Michael Wixom said. "We're addressing budget cuts that could affect higher education for years to come."
Wixom told the board it had two choices: cut now or cut later.
Cutting now, he said, would be problematic. First, the 14 percent figure is a best guess. No one knows for sure what the tax revenues will be. Perhaps things will get better and smaller cuts will be needed.
Why go through all the effort to cut now when it might not be necessary? Wixom asked.
Or worse, perhaps the economy will continue to tank, making more cuts necessary.
In that case, Wixom said, why do it twice when it could all be done later?
Regent Ron Knecht had a response to that.
Knecht, an economist by trade, began with a lecture. Educators can be disconnected from reality, he said. Some can be whiners. He gave a history lesson on economics.
The quality of many items -- a twin bed, a long distance phone call, for example -- have improved dramatically over decades while their relative costs have decreased, he said.
This is not true with higher education, Knecht said. He took exception with the notion in higher education circles that the state's colleges and universities are underfunded.
"We have a responsibility to do better than we have been doing," Knecht said.
He said that the governor was in a tough position and that the requested cuts are necessary.
"We should do our duty and serve the real public interest by delivering just such a budget," Knecht said.
Regent Howard Rosenberg, an art professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, took exception with Knecht's remarks.
He said they were all in a "damn difficult" situation. Cutting 14 percent, Rosenberg said, is "absolutely unconscionable."
Several other regents wanted to hear from students and faculty before making any cuts. That has not happened yet because students and teachers have been away for the summer.
Leavitt, an attorney, said that the board would lose its leverage in political talks if it went ahead and made the cuts now. Leavitt described higher education as unique: Spending money on it brings economic benefits to the state unlike other government spending.
Leavitt also said his job as a regent was to be an advocate for the system and for the students.
Knecht countered that his job was to be an advocate for the state as a whole and for the taxpayers.
Eight regents voted to adopt the budget, with only Knecht opposing it.
The approval was given with a condition: Wixom, the chairman, will include a cover letter with the budget explaining that the regents would make cuts later on, when they had more certainty about how much they needed to cut.
The students who spoke lamented the potential cuts and called education an investment. Cutting now will hurt more later, they said.
Ryan Crowell, student president at Nevada State College, said cuts would send a message to students that their government does not care about education.
John Creedon, CSN's student vice president, said the state's economy needs to be diversified, that relying on one industry for most revenues hurts. The best way to diversify, he said, is through higher education.
Contact reporter Richard Lake at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0307.