CARSON CITY — For a Democrat, Assemblyman Elliot Anderson sure wants to cut the size and scope of government.
Anderson, from Las Vegas, introduced two resolutions this session that would trim some fat off the state constitution. Assembly Joint Resolution 6 would have done away with the constitutional offices of state treasurer and state controller, transferring the duties of both to executive branch agencies under the control of the governor. Incumbents Dan Schwartz and Ron Knecht, respectively, would have been allowed to finish their terms, with the offices dissolved after that.
That bill died in the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee last month, however. The treasurer and controller live on.
But Anderson has had more success with Assembly Joint Resolution 5, which would remove the Board of Regents from the state constitution, and empower the Legislature to write laws to govern the Nevada System of Higher Education.
Nevada would still have community colleges, state colleges and universities. The Board of Regents wouldn’t go away. It simply would draw its powers from state statutes, not from Article 11 of the constitution. Regents would still oversee higher education. And they’d still be elected, not appointed, to their jobs.
Assembly Joint Resolution 5 passed the Assembly’s Legislative Operations and Elections Committee, and was approved by the entire Assembly by an overwhelming 38-4 vote.
Democrats Teresa Benitez-Thompson, Amber Joiner and Jill Tolles, all D-Reno, and Republican Lisa Krasner, R-Reno, voted against. Notably, Joiner and Tolles are adjunct college professors, and Krasner is a political science instructor at the Truckee Meadows Community College.
The resolution then moved to the Senate, where the Legislative Operations and Elections Committee voted it out on Wednesday. Also notable: The lone “no” vote was state Sen. Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, who works as the executive assistant to the president of UNR.
In fact, Gansert is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the legal arm of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, which seeks to oust her from her academic job. The conservative group alleges that Gansert’s elected job and day job jointly violate the constitution’s separation of powers clause, which says that no person who exercises the powers of one branch of government may exercise the functions of another. Gansert’s university lawyers dispute that allegation.
But the conflict of interest — people affiliated with higher education voting against a legislative measure that directly affects their employer — is a good example of the kind of thing the framers of Nevada’s constitution sought to avoid. The fact is, while the university system deploys lobbyists in Carson City, employee/legislators are able to act as “super citizens,” people who serve in office and benefit from the emoluments of the executive branch.
State Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, said at Wednesday’s hearing that one of the benefits of removing the Board of Regents from the constitution was that the system could not longer claim constitutional warrant to act as a “fourth branch of government.” Far from being the equivalent of the legislative, executive or judicial branches, the state’s higher education system is clearly part of the executive branch, albeit with its own separately elected board of governors. But over the years, that heightened constitutional status has led to more than a little mischief.
And the system currently finds itself at a crossroads. Former Chancellor Dan Klaich resigned after a scandal in which it appeared he was intervening in research to get a desired result, while also keeping some of that information from the lawmakers who oversee the university system. Interim Chancellor John White was prepared to take on the job full-time, but later backed out, leaving the system scrambling to fill the post before White’s last day.
So, there’s a bit of chaos there.
AJR 5 is a constitutional amendment, so if it passes the Senate, it must return to the Legislature in 2019. If approved again by lawmakers, it will go before voters on the general election ballot in 2020.
Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5276. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.