Assembly, Senate battle over university budgets
The first major budget battle of the session erupted Thursday as Assembly Democrats began positioning themselves to bargain for more K-12 public education money.
When the dust settled, they had voted to chop $25.7 million more from university budgets than the Senate members of the joint subcommittee.
Executive Vice Chancellor Dan Klaich wasn’t happy with the cuts, which came on top of $11 million in cuts ordered by the governor. But he and faculty representative Jim Richardson both said they were pleased neither side dipped too deep into their top priorities – formula funding that supports all campuses based on enrollment and the “hold harmless” funding to protect campuses from formula cuts when enrollment growth is less than projected or actually falling, as it is at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Both Assembly and Senate members backed Gov. Jim Gibbons’ proposed 1 percent increase in formula funding to 85.5 percent.
Both sides also backed the bulk of “hold harmless” funding with the Assembly making a $2 million reduction to the $19 million hold harmless funding as recommended by the budget office.
“We agreed to support their highest priorities, which were funding formulas and hold harmless and couldn’t fund the rest,” said Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, after the meeting.
Buckley later testified before Ways and Means in favor of her bill to implement full-day kindergarten statewide. That plan would cost on the order of $100 million a year which many on the Senate side have said just isn’t there given the state’s revenue shortfalls.
She said there is only $13 million in new education funding in this proposed budget.
“That’s not putting education first,” Buckley said.
She said lawmakers must find a way to fund kindergarten, vocational and technical education and other public school needs.
Chairman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, led the drive which started with the removal of proposed funding for nonprofit organizations such as the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome research center. He, Buckley, Sheila Leslie and Debbie Smith, both D-Reno, joined to vote for the series of a dozen budget cuts. They were universally opposed by Assembly Republicans Heidi Gansert of Reno and John Marvel of Battle Mountain along with all Senators on the panel.
The largest single item cut was the Workforce Development program proposed by Gibbons – a $7 million reduction.
The cut that most disturbed Richardson was the Assembly vote to cut back the “merit pay pool,” which has provided up to 2.5 percent raises for top performing professors since it was created in 1985. The Assembly members cut it back to 2 percent this budget cycle only, which would save about $5.2 million.
“The cut in the merit pool is demoralizing to a hard-working faculty,” he said pointing out that, unlike state workers and teachers, professors don’t get annual step increases in their pay to recognize their experience.
The divide was partisan on the Assembly side with Democrats backing the cuts and Republicans supporting the original budget plan. On the Senate side of the joint subcommittee, both parties supported the original budget including several items the university system had recommended removing.
“They’ve gutted the higher education budget,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno. “”I have been told privately they would like to take money from higher education and put it in K-12 and I question the wisdom of that when the governor has exempted K-12 from cuts.”
Arberry, however, said he and other Assembly Democrats believe higher education has been treated well in past sessions while K-12 has “always gotten the short end of the stick.”
“We’ve always given higher education and prisons what they asked for,” Arberry said.
He said the money the governor and Raggio want to give to nonprofit groups studying chronic fatigue syndrome, Alzheimer’s, cancer and other problems is all for good causes.
“I support them all,” he said.
But Arberry said state needs such as public education must come first and, this year, there isn’t enough money for both.
Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, described the situation more succinctly as part of the games that lead to the end of the session: “It’s stage play. It’s Kabuki with no swords.”
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 687-8750.