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Gibbons proposing big changes in higher education system

Gov. Jim Gibbons, who has sought to cut the higher education system’s state-funded budget by almost half in the past two years, is scheduled to announce this morning that he will back a series of changes in state law that higher education leaders have supported for decades.

"I believe in the years to come that this state will ask higher education to become more self-sustaining, that is, less dependent on state resources," the governor states in a draft of proposed changes sent to the higher education system’s Board of Regents. "If, as a state, we ask higher education to be more self-sufficient, it is right and reasonable that we give them the tools to effectively meet that challenge."

Among the changes Gibbons said he will propose in the 2011 Legislature:

■ Allowing the higher education system to keep all in-state tuition funds. Currently, about two-thirds of that money goes into the state’s general fund.

■ Changing classified staff from state employees to employees of the higher education system. Classified employees typically are the lower level workers, such as maintenance workers and administrative assistants.

■ Exempting higher education from supervision and control by the state Public Works Board to remove "another layer of bureaucracy."

■ Giving greater autonomy to the regents. "We should stay out of their business," the draft proposal states.

■ Allowing the higher education system to keep 25 percent of the money it is allocated but does not spend. Currently, all unspent money reverts to the state.

■ Stabilizing the system’s biennial budget. "It is my recommendation that we create a policy where we guarantee a certain appropriation to higher education," the governor’s draft proposal states.

Because of a state budget crisis, Gibbons last year proposed cutting higher education’s state funding by 36 percent. It was ultimately cut 12.5 percent.

This year, as the crisis worsened, Gibbons proposed a 10 percent state funding reduction to higher education. At a legislative special session, a 6.9 percent cut was approved.

A message seeking comment from the governor’s office Wednesday was not returned. Neither was a call to Board of Regents Chairman James Dean Leavitt.

Higher Education Chancellor Dan Klaich was reluctant to talk about specifics because the governor had not publicly released details of the plan.

Former Chancellor Jim Rogers, who publicly feuded with the governor over higher education funding, called the changes Gibbons will propose "a good start." Rogers fought for the system to be allowed to keep the tuition it collects and won a temporary OK from the legislature last year. He said that provision "needs to be done" permanently.

He said allowing the system to keep 25 percent of the money it does not spend is better than allowing it to keep nothing, but it does not solve the problem.

In all, the former chancellor called Gibbons’ proposals long overdue but said they ultimately fall short.

"The truth of the matter is, these things should have been done a long time ago," Rogers said. "We went to the Legislature last year, and we couldn’t get it done."

He compared Gibbons’ proposal to somebody who "beats your brains out and then gives you a cloth to wipe up the blood."

Gibbons is scheduled to make the announcement at 10:45 a.m. today during a regents meeting at the College of Southern Nevada.

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

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