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Big money, broad coalition lined up behind Nevada’s Question 1

Updated October 25, 2020 - 3:16 pm

With less than two weeks until the final ballots are cast, the push to remove the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents from Nevada’s constitution has been a mostly one-sided race funded in large part by a handful of business groups.

Nevadans for a Higher Quality Education, the PAC pushing for the passage of Question 1 on this year’s ballot, has raised more than $500,000 in the past six months leading up to the Nov. 3 election, according to the latest campaign finance reports filed this month.

Meanwhile, there is still no formal campaign opposing the measure. Instead, the vocal opposition has mostly fallen to a handful of individual regents who have argued against giving the Legislature more oversight of the board on which they were elected to serve.

By removing references to the board of regents from the constitution, Question 1 would put the legal authority of the board that oversees Nevada universities and colleges into state law, where the state Legislature would have more oversight.

Supporters of the measure cite past issues with the board, which has often been accused of being resistant to change, as the need for more legislative oversight. A 2016 Review-Journal article showed how the Board of Regents misled lawmakers who were studying equity in distribution of state funding.

Opponents, however, say that the measure is an attempt by a handful of current and former state lawmakers and business leaders who have butted heads with the Board of Regents over the years to change the power structure of higher education and that it offers no guarantee that it will improve higher education in the state.

The money

Nearly all of the $596,000 raised by the pro-Question 1 PAC has come from just three sources, all of which have deep ties to the business community.

About $340,000 came from the Council for a Better Nevada, a group that says its mission is to “identify and engage in community issues whose outcomes will greatly affect the lives of Nevadans.” The group’s board members include Las Vegas Raiders President Marc Badain and Latin Chamber of Commerce President Peter Guzman.

Stephen Cloobeck, the founder of Diamond Resorts International timeshares, has donated $100,000 to the PAC supporting the measure, while a further $95,000 came from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

As of Sept. 30, the group had spent roughly $474,000, with the largest chunk of $255,000 being paid to Winner &Mandabach Campaigns LLC, a national firm that specializes in ballot measures. The PAC also paid polling company the Mellman Group $74,000, while another $74,000 was paid to Woods Strategies LLC, the campaign company run by the PAC’s campaign manager, Andrew Woods.

Ties to a regent

Woods’ working as the pro-Question 1 PAC’s campaign manager creates an interesting dynamic in that he is working to change the power structure of the board on which his longtime partner, Lisa Levine, currently serves as a regent.

Levine was appointed to the seat by Gov. Steve Sisolak on May 29 to fill the vacancy left by the death of Regent Sam Lieberman. Levine is not running for the seat in the upcoming election, and her appointment will last about six months. Woods’ company received its first payment from the PAC on June 4, according to campaign finance reports.

In an interview, Levine said she knew that Woods was talking to some potential clients around the time of her appointment, including the Question 1 group, but she said there is a wall between her and Woods on the issue. Levine said she did not disclose Woods’ potential employment to Sisolak before her appointment.

“Andrew does what he does. And I do what I do. I have an independent career and I’m an independent person,” Levine said.

Levine has remained neutral on the ballot measure itself and doesn’t think Woods’ involvement with the measure has created any conflict in her temporary role. Woods could not be reached for comment for this story.

In a statement, Sisolak’s office said Levine was appointed “based on her individual merits and her dedication to the state of Nevada, specifically in the area of advancing higher education.”

Levine drew headlines recently when regents chief of staff Dean Gould accused her of speaking like a child during a public meeting and said he would “man speak” to her, a comment that drew outrage and condemnation from Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and people on social media.

In an August op-ed published in the Las Vegas Sun, Levine cited the incident as a reason “why so many in the community have concerns over the governance structure of public higher education in Nevada.”

The arguments

Hugh Anderson, government affairs committee chairman for the Vegas chamber, said the prominent business group is backing the measure because its members believe that more oversight and accountability are needed the Board of Regents, which he said is limited in the current structure because of the insulation provided by the state constitution.

“The regents should be answering to the legislative body that provides funding to the board,” he said.

While money for the pro-Question 1 PAC has come mostly from the business community, the measure has garnered a fairly broad coalition of support by way of endorsements from labor groups, such as the Service Employees International Union Local 1107 and Culinary Local 226, as well as a bipartisan group of current and former state lawmakers.

“We have Republicans, stalwart conservatives, Democrats, labor, rural, north and south all supporting Question 1 because it restores basic American government,” said Democratic former Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, who co-sponsored the 2017 bill that kickstarted the process of getting the measure on the ballot this year and who serves on PAC’s advisory board. “If this were a big, terrible thing, all of these people wouldn’t be united.”

Proponents like the Vegas chamber and Anderson point to a 2018 study that ranked Nevada 46th in educational attainment, a statistic measuring the highest level of education someone has received, as further reason for the need for more oversight. They say that lawmakers can better account for how the board is spending money.

But to some current regents who have come out against Question 1, the measure would do little to benefit higher education in the state.

“This is the proverbial solution in search of a problem,” said Regent Trevor Hayes, whose term expires at the end of the year and who is not running for re-election.

“If Question 1 passes, it will not fix any of the problems that have been highlighted, and we don’t have any certainty of what will happen if this actually passes,” Hayes said.

Regent Jason Geddes said the measure appears to be another attempt by the Legislature to move toward making regents appointed rather than elected, as they currently are.

He pointed to a proposal that failed in the 2019 Legislature that would have created a hybrid system in which five regents are elected and four are appointed by the governor. That bill was sponsored by Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, who was one of the co-sponsors of the 2017 bill that led to Question 1 as well.

Anderson acknowledged that the Legislature could at some point decide to have appointed regents if Question 1 were to pass, but he said “it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to happen.”

The main point, he said, is that Question 1 would give state lawmakers more direct oversight of the board, similar to the level it currently has over other state government agencies.

“It’s purely about restoring accountability, transparency and oversight,” he said.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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