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Rogers dogged in pursuit

Jim Rogers is the kind of man who declares. He does not make it a habit to request, drop hints or make diplomatic statements when he could simply lay out the facts as he sees them.

And the facts as he sees them are these: He is right and anyone who disagrees with him is an ignoramus.

So what if some people don’t like him. His approach might actually be working.

“The chancellor’s strategy seems to be gaining traction,” said Jacob Thompson, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor who studies the power of persuasion and coaches the debate team. “He’s been tenacious about it. He’s kept it up. And he’s repeating his message. Repetition is very important in persuasion.”

Rogers, who turned 70 on Monday, is in perhaps the fiercest battle of his public life as he goes head to head with Gov. Jim Gibbons over proposed cuts to the state higher education system’s budget.

And, as always, Rogers is not shy about making his case. Since May, in a series of weekly “memos” and other public correspondence, Rogers has blasted the no-new-taxes governor as an inflexible ideologue.

“The governor has taken himself out of the equation,” Rogers said in an interview. “All he’s said is ‘No.’ That’s not very negotiable.”

Gibbons, seeing a serious downturn in state revenue as the economy slumps, has asked all state agencies to cut 14 percent or more from their budgets for the next two years. That follows smaller cuts already enacted.

As to whether he’s taken himself “out of the equation,” the governor disagrees.

“We’re talking to the people who actually set the policy for higher education,” spokesman Ben Kieckhefer said. He meant members of the Board of Regents, with whom several members of the governor’s staff met last week.

“At this point,” Kieckhefer said of Rogers, “he sounds a lot like the chancellor who cried budget cuts.”

The issue will come to a head in February, when the Legislature meets.

Until then, Rogers is pursuing an approach that expressly ignores the governor: the memos, ostensibly addressed to the Board of Regents, which governs the higher education system, but really targeting the public and legislators.

In the memos, Rogers has described the cuts as “horrific,” himself as “enraged,” and Nevada as “chronically poorly educated.”

“I am frustrated, enraged and totally disappointed that Nevada’s leadership simply keeps score rather than trying to develop solutions to our problems,” he wrote in one memo.

A system spokesman said the memos are e-mailed to about 1,500 addresses each week. They get forwarded within the higher education system so often that the IT department has intervened. Instead of attachments, links are now sent out.

The system includes eight institutions with an annual budget of more than $800 million.

The memos started out as a standard public relations campaign, portraying higher education in Nevada as chronically underfunded and ill-equipped to take more cuts.

The memos focused on specific impacts to specific institutions, too, often including supplements from the institutions. One from UNLV’s provost, Neal Smatresk, for example, called the potential cuts “fatal.”

The effect was immediate.

“It started off really, really huge because they were new,” said Steve Sisolak, a member of the system’s governing Board of Regents.

He noted few chancellors but Rogers, a self-made multimillionaire who has served as chancellor for virtually nothing since 2004, could have pulled this off.

Rogers, who famously quit the post a year and a half ago only to rescind the resignation, has publicly said he will step down next June. Rogers owns a chain of television stations, including the local KVBC-TV, Channel 3.

He says publicly whenever he can that the state needs to restructure its tax system. He wants and pushes for a new corporate income tax, seen by most as a virtual impossibility in a state with a libertarian streak as strong as Nevada’s.

As the weeks went on, new memos followed. Many had similar language. The chatter they incited began to die down.

There was talk that Rogers might have a Chicken Little complex, crying about a falling sky so often that folks would stop listening. Was he just stroking his own ego here?

“Have his memos had any significant positive impact? Perhaps only a self-administered therapy for Jim, but not otherwise,” said Regent Ron Knecht, a frequent critic.

Something might have changed. People — important people — seem to be listening.

Recent memos have included letters of support from powerful people, including the following: State Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, former governors Kenny Guinn (a Republican) and Bob Miller (a Democrat), the mayors of Reno and Las Vegas, and business power brokers Steve Wynn and Terry Lanni, CEO of MGM Mirage, among many others.

Regent James Dean Leavitt, who has had very public disagreements with Rogers in the past, said he appreciates what Rogers is doing with the memos.

“I think he wants to keep the issue out in the forefront,” Leavitt said. He said he sees it as the chancellor’s job to do exactly what Rogers is doing: advocating for higher education.

Thompson, the debate coach, said the chancellor’s memos do exactly that, and more. They’ll keep the issue in the spotlight between now and next year’s legislative session.

“Maybe it makes people think about things, about why we should value higher education in this state,” he said. “About what type of leadership the state needs.”

Others wonder, though, whether the memos are doing anything at all.

Sisolak, sympathetic to Rogers’ cause as he is, isn’t sure.

“He’s raised the issue. Whether it’s going to have the effect we desire, we don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what happens.”

Rogers remains confident anyway.

“I’m feeling fairly bullish about what the Legislature’s going to do,” he said.

Knecht pointed out, however, that Rogers’ memos might be, and almost certainly are, galvanizing opposition.

The no-new-taxes crowd is incensed. The only people Rogers has lined up “support” from, the regent said, is “the tax-and-spend crowd.”

The memos, he said, “border on delusional at times. I’m just not sure that his hope reflects any reality that the rest of us see.”

Knecht was referring to a memo titled “Hope, hope there is hope” in which Rogers touts support from some Democratic legislators, people who would never be on the governor’s side anyway.

Conservative activist and popular Carson City blogger Chuck Muth agrees.

“Every time Jim Rogers attacks Jim Gibbons for not raising taxes,” he said, “he helps to solidify the governor’s base.”

But what about all the talk Rogers’ memos are generating? Isn’t that educating the public? Isn’t it making a difference, as Rogers contends, with legislators?

“I don’t talk to Democrats,” Muth said, “but my conservative Republican friends are forwarding them to me and saying, ‘How do you make this guy stop?’ The stuff he’s been saying is outrageous.”

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

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