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Higher education options weighed

CARSON CITY — Nevada higher education officials and legislators agreed Friday that rather than cutting the budgets of the state’s two universities by 50 percent, reductions should be equalized in all colleges and universities.

“If there are budget cuts, then it should follow that they are proportionate,” Vice Chancellor Dan Klaich told a joint Senate-Assembly budget committee.

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, agreed, saying she could not envision the effects that the 50 percent cuts in Gov. Jim Gibbons’ budget would have on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the University of Nevada, Reno.

Buckley said legislators need to make sure that “no campus takes a disproportionate cut.”

Under Gibbons’ two-year budget, state funds to the Higher Education System of Nevada would be cut by $473 million, or 36 percent.

The governor reasoned the colleges and universities could make up the cuts through tuition increases approved by the Board of Regents.

Since then, university officials have calculated tuition would have to increase by 225 percent to cover the loss of state revenue. In state tuition now costs about $4,000 a year at the universities.

Under Gibbons’ budget plan, cuts at the two universities would be much higher than at the community colleges.

During the hearing, Senate Finance Chairman Bernice Mathews, D-Reno, several times asked Klaich to be more candid about just what cuts the university system would make if Gibbons’ budget eventually becomes law.

At one point Klaich said 2,000 to 2,200 faculty members and support workers would be laid off if the budget had to be reduced by the full 36 percent.

Mathews insisted Klaich return to the committee before April 1 with specifics about what cuts would be made. Klaich said the system’s plan of handling cuts is almost done.

“This is real serious,” Mathews said. “We are coming to the end of this. The budget is going to be closed pretty soon. We have to have an answer from you if we are going to help you.”

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said he wants to see what cuts would be required if the system budget was $550 million, the same as it was during the 2005-06 fiscal year, and 5 percent tuition increases were added to that figure.

Once the Legislature knows where the higher education system would make cuts, legislators might begin to make a case for tax increases.

Buckley has said lawmakers want to show Nevadans what the consequences would be if taxes are not increased.

“We need to look at how to restore what is essential,” she said Friday. “There are going to have to be some level of cuts for all these programs.”

Gibbons vowed again this week to veto bills that increase taxes.

Klaich said there would be no need for layoffs if the Legislature restored university spending to 2006 levels and placed education funds available from the economic stimulus fund into the higher education budget.

Earlier this week Gibbons applied to the U.S. secretary of education for a waiver from a federal stimulus plan requirement that the state must restore university spending at least to 2006 levels to qualify for nearly $400 million in federal funds.

If it does not receive a waiver, then the Legislature would have to find an additional $265 million in state funds before it could qualify for the federal dollars.

Buckley told Klaich he can’t count on receiving all federal stimulus funds if Nevada secures a waiver or meets the requirement to add state funds to the higher education budget.

There are other priorities to consider. Under Gibbons’ budget, she said, programs to provide care to pregnant women and autistic children have been eliminated. Eleven of 20 rural mental health clinics also must be closed under his budget, according to Buckley.

Buckley said she believes the vast majority of lawmakers agree with her that those programs must be restored.

“People need to understand the crisis we are in,” said Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas. “We have to try to fund government services at a very core level.”

Klaich noted that even if the higher education system received stimulus funds, that money runs out in two years and the colleges and universities then could “be even more at risk.”

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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