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Enough is Enough: Repubs must stop holding state's future hostage for higher ed reforms long underway

26 May 2011 10:40 AM | Anonymous
As the legislature approaches the final days of its 120-day session, the back-and-forth and political positioning around the budget has become both more intense and less worth detailed reporting. The overall situation has changed very little; the System of Higher Education and each of its campuses are certain to sustain significant reductions in state general fund support.

The impact on students, faculty, staff and the state will be painful in ways that have been well-established for months. No one, at any level, should be under any illusion; the outcome will be a step back for Nevada.

The specific form of that detrimental impact will be determined, finally, at the level of the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents (likely at its June meeting) and on each campus – and the NFA will be an active, vigorous and responsible advocate for faculty when those decisions are made. 

In the legislature, the magnitude of cuts and the structure of higher ed financing remain to be determined.

Several important questions seems settled already, and it is worth keeping these realities in mind before entering into any discussion of the legislative "end-game" so hyped by journalists, but which is very unlikely to change any of the following:
  • It is near-certain that all NSHE faculty and staff will sustain a 4.8-percent reduction in take-home pay from 2009 levels and some portion of this reduction (at least 2.5 percent) will be a permanent reduction in base pay, with corresponding reduction in retirement contributions. 
  • It is even more certain that health coverage for all faculty and staff will be significantly scaled back; and that the premiums, deductibles and co-insurance paid by faculty and staff and their families will rise significantly for all plans, increasing out-of-pocket costs by at least $1,000 for individuals and $2,000 for families – beyond the already increased out-of-pocket levels of the last two years.
  • Access will be reduced significantly for students, thousands fewer of whom will be able to enroll each year on all campuses (including open-access colleges). For those who are able to enroll, fees will almost certainly increase 13 percent for the coming year and stand a high likelihood of increasing another 13 percent for 2012-2013.
  • Academic programs will be eliminated at UNR and UNLV, with the near certainty of faculty being issued terminal contracts (i.e., laid off, effective July 1, 2012) and with the very high likelihood, based on what we know now, that this will include tenured faculty. Faculty layoffs through program review have also been announced by the Western Nevada administration.
Now, as for legislative action of the week:

On Tuesday, as widely reported, the Democratic majority effectively abandoned the compromise budget alternative it had proposed three weeks earlier. That proposal combined significant cutbacks in state spending and significant reforms in state and local government  operations with significant long-term reform of the state's broken revenue structure. For NSHE, this meant that the roughly $100 million in state investment that had been restored as part of that compromise proposal (leaving cuts of $60 million for the coming biennium, thus a total reduction of close to $150 million in state support since 2008) was reduced.

The result was a proposal to cut state investment in higher education for the coming biennium by $80 million, with that hole to be filled by both additional student fee increases and reduced access and program cuts (including layoffs) on campuses. Presuming some unresolved issues concerning how student fees are to be calculated get worked out, and that shortfalls in county property tax revenue will be covered by the state, this proposal closely resembles the revised "4-point plan" proposed by Chancellor Klaich and endorsed by the Board of Regents more than a month ago.

But while the Democratic majorities in both the Assembly and Senate supported this compromise-of-a-compromise, it does not represent a real compromise in the ordinary sense of the word – because the Republican caucuses in both houses still refuse to accept a continuation of current tax rates and are insisting on a roll-back of business and sales taxes to 2007 levels. Because current tax policies enacted in 2009 are set to expire on June 30, 2011, some Republicans must vote to retain current policies for even the compromise-of-a-compromise budget to pass. 

So to resume, the only question that really remains to be decided by the legislature is in the hands of the Republican caucus: Do they support the Governor's proposal, which has become known among higher ed leaders as the "full pain path" (also referred to by some as "burn it to the ground") and whose impact on the state's future has been well documented and decried by students, faculty, and business leaders for months.

Or do they support what they say they have sought: educational reforms such as performance reviews for individual faculty and for degree programs (which are standard operating procedures on all NSHE campuses); reductions in operating expenses; culling of low-yield programs (which have been done at NSHE to a more significant extent than at any public or private entity in the past two years, and are certain to continue for the next two to four years); and higher output of degrees and certificates (which is the case for almost every campus for the past several years).

In short, if the Republicans really want reform, the time has long since passed to stop holding the state's future hostage. And Democrats ought to stop negotiating with themselves, declare that enough is enough, and simply wait for their colleagues to join them in passing a budget that – in all honesty – does little to move the state forward but at the least slows our relative rate of economic and educational decline.

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