To the editor:
On March 21, hundreds of students traveled to Carson City to protest proposed budget cuts to higher education. While I appreciate the expression of support and activism on behalf of our colleges and universities, it is essential that we not allow the protests over cuts in one portion of our state budget to drown out the difficulties of cuts to another.
Furthermore, we must not forget the reason we are forced to make spending reductions in the first place.
Back during the 2003-05 biennium, Nevada's general fund spending increased 36 percent thanks to a significant tax hike and an economic bubble. The combination of both events pumped considerable sums of money into the government's coffers. From there, Nevada's spending continued to grow faster than inflation right up until the economic bubble burst.
Even as thousands of Nevadans were laid off and hundreds of millions of dollars in wealth were lost, the Nevada Legislature proceeded to raise taxes again in order to keep the government spending bubble going despite a nationwide economic collapse.
With fewer people, fewer jobs, lower incomes and less wealth in the Silver State today than in the boom years, it should come as no surprise that tax revenues have dropped. We simply cannot afford boom-era government spending in the middle of a prolonged recession.
Instead of spending more money we don't have, we need to use our scarce resources more effectively.
The most important, short-term benefit we can provide for the Nevada System of Higher Education is to conduct an honest and thoughtful discussion between students, faculty, lawmakers and the taxpayers who shoulder the burden of funding all three.
For example, NSHE's operating budget, per capita, grew at an annual rate of 3.8 percent between FY 2000 and FY 2010 while the state's per capita personal income averaged annual growth of just 2.1 percent. In other words, NSHE's spending grew faster than the per-capita income of all those footing the bill.
Meanwhile, students in Nevada contribute little toward their own education. According to the 2009 report "Trends in College Spending," Nevada's students pay just 36 percent of all expenditures on "education and research" in higher education compared to the national average of 51 percent.
I understand that keeping tuition low is a strategy to increase accessibility, but I believe it is far worse to leave students in debt after a mediocre education and no degree. With six-year graduation rates below 50 percent in Nevada, we clearly have work to do in improving quality. We also have to ensure that any additional tuition increases fund the student's education, not highly paid administrators, plush offices or other side projects that are unrelated to actually educating the tuition-paying students.
I'm confident that when we finally escape the clutches of this recession, we will be wiser for having gone through it. I believe we will not only approach our private investments with more care and caution, but we will demand more from our public investments.
Nevadans show the confidence to continue important, public investments, but I assure you, they are keeping a closer eye on those investments and they no longer will allow higher taxes to fund higher levels of spending on a mediocre-at-best product. Now is the time for reforms (and not just in higher education, but all throughout government) so that we can provide a better product to you Nevada's investors.
The writer, a Republican, represents state Senate District 5 in the Nevada Legislature.