UNLV students protest against proposed budget cuts

Ignoring the rain and their classes, hundreds of college students screamed at the governor, pleaded with legislators and did their best Tuesday to make the case that higher education has seen enough budget cuts.

"No More Cuts!" they chanted over and over.

The group first gathered on UNLV's campus in what was pitched as a walkout, a ditching of class to show everyone how important their battle was.

Higher education Chancellor Dan Klaich said he did not have a problem with the students skipping class. He said they would "put a face" on the cuts.

"We're not talking about percentages, we're talking about people," he said.

Gov. Jim Gibbons has called for a special session of the Legislature to deal with an almost $900 million shortfall in state revenue. He has pitched a 10 percent cut to higher education. Such a cut would follow a cut of 12.5 percent last year, which followed smaller cuts.

The students are worried, as are higher education leaders, that more cuts could force the closure of some colleges, layoffs or pay cuts or the elimination of some departments and classes. They contend such eliminations will make it harder or impossible to graduate on time.

"If any of you think you're cutting class today, you're not," UNLV student Jon Goldman, the student government's director of campus life, told the crowd. "You're attending a new one."

Many in the group of several hundred headed downtown to the Sawyer Building, where the Legislature's Interim Finance Committee was meeting.

They were met by students from the College of Southern Nevada and Nevada State College, and the group gathered at the building's front door.

They held signs. "Have you no shame," one read.

"Get your damn dirty paws off my budget," read another.

Amsala Alemu-Johnson, the student body president at the state college, led a chant of "We vote!"

Soon, it began to drizzle. The crowd grew. The chanting got louder. The rain got harder, and the temperature colder.

Very few people left. Instead, umbrellas came out. Trash bags were turned into ponchos. Cheering ensued.

"We don't want cuts to higher education! Am I right?" a guy named Jim (he of the "dirty paws" sign) asked the crowd.

He was greeted with a giant "Wooo!"

"No more cuts!" was chanted again.

"Cut the governor's pay!" someone screamed.

Soon, the students' chants were heard. U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., stopped by.

"Our future is you," she told the crowd as she hovered under a pink umbrella. "And you deserve the best education that the state of Nevada ..."

"Wooo!" the crowd interrupted.

"Let's kick a little butt," Berkley said.

The legislative committee upstairs took its lunch break.

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, made her way outside.

She said she worked her way through college, going to class at night.

"So I know how hard you all work to get an education," she said.

"I'm glad you're here," she told them. "We have a tough, tough job."

Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, and Assemblyman John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, thanked the group for coming.

"I know these cuts are terrible," Oceguera said. "We'll do everything we can do."

Next up was Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, who had given the response to Gibbons' State of the State speech Monday night. In that response, Horsford said now is not a good time to pass new taxes, a rare agreement with the governor but a disappointment to many higher ed leaders.

Horsford gave the students a figurative pat on the back.

He said, "This is your government," and promised to take a look, at some time in the future, at reforming the state's revenue structure.

Despite the praise heaped upon the students, no one promised that there would be no cuts to higher education.

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