Regents back budget with new funding

By SEAN WHALEY

RENO — The university system Board of Regents gave tentative support Friday to a new two-year budget that not only fails to reflect a request by Gov. Jim Gibbons to cut spending by 14 percent, but includes $125 million in new funding.

Regents also agreed to seek another $27 million for new programs and priorities if tax revenue becomes available.

Regents opted not to include other projects and enhancements worth tens of millions of additional dollars.

The board did not take final action on its 2009-11 budget request during a meeting at the University of Nevada, Reno, leaving that decision to for Aug. 21. Gibbons’ request to state agencies and education to submit budget cuts will be addressed at that time.

The budget given the initial OK would increase, not cut, state spending by 9.5 percent over current legislatively approved levels. The increase would pay for inflationary costs and increased student enrollment, a funding level university officials say would only keep them whole.

The $27 million in additional requests would pay for a $10 million upgrade to the system computer systems and $3.7 million to fund the operation of the Health Sciences System, along with two other priorities. The Health Sciences System is a multi-campus plan to increase the number of medical professionals in Nevada, including doctors and nurses.

Dan Klaich, executive vice chancellor for the university system, said the budget endorsement is no different than any submission to the governor in past years, despite the state’s dire fiscal condition.

There is nothing in the state constitution or state law requiring the regents to balance the state budget, Klaich said.

"We present what we think is needed to run the system of higher education. That’s our job," he said. "The governor’s job is to take that budget and the budgets of all the state agencies, put those in priority order, determine how much money is there to spend and balance the state budget. That’s his job."

Gibbons’ spokesman Ben Kieckhefer said the governor will wait before passing judgment to see how the final higher education budget looks after regents take a final vote.

But he suggested that regents keep in mind that lower tax revenues for the next two years will require cutting, not augmenting, budgets.

"The governor is going to propose a budget that is balanced based on our existing revenues," Kieckhefer said. "Right now our existing revenues look like they are going to require some reductions in spending, not enhancements."

The Board of Regents should prioritize its spending with that in mind, he said.

"Everyone else in the state is cutting their budgets. Everyone else is adapting to the current economic conditions," Kieckhefer said.

Regents, during their budget discussion, were not completely unmindful of the state of the economy. Regent Dorothy Gallagher said the board’s credibility could be jeopardized by submitting a budget that does not reflect the state’s budget problems.

The governor and lawmakers will ask regents what "rock we’ve been living under," Gallagher said.

"So I would not be for going forth with a budget that we have not cut anything out of," Gallagher said. "The money is not there."

But Regent Cedric Crear said if the Legislature wants to cut spending, it can do so. Regents should submit a budget that reflects the needs and priorities of the Nevada System of Higher Education, he said.

"I think these are imperative measures that we feel need to happen in order for us to properly provide a quality education," Crear said.

Regent James Dean Leavitt said the higher education system is different from other state agencies because there is a return on the investment.

"What we’re doing is good for the state. We’re saving the state money long term," he said.

Regents Chairman Michael Wixom also expressed concern about submitting a budget with numerous enhancements.

Gibbons has asked all state agencies, including the higher education system, to submit budgets that reflect spending levels that are 14 percent lower than the current budgets.

The budget under consideration by the board seeks $125 million in new state funding to pay for inflationary costs such as utilities, as well as student enrollment increases.

State funding would increase to $1.444 billion from $1.319 billion, a 9.5 percent increase.

The share of the total higher education budget covered by student fees would increase slightly, from just below 21 percent of the total now to slightly over 21 percent, under the proposed budget.

Enrollment at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is projected to decline in the upcoming budget, by 3.6 percent in the first year and 1.1 percent in the second year. But the College of Southern Nevada would see enrollment jump by 10.9 percent in the first year and 3.9 percent in the second.

Regent Steve Sisolak told student government officials attending the meeting that it is up to students to protect higher education programs and spending.

"You need to stand up and speak loudly," he said. "You are our best shot at saving higher education."

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900.

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