Legislators again mull effort to pull regents from the constitution
What’s in a constitution?
The Board of Regents, as it turns out. And for the second session in a row, lawmakers will consider SJR7, a measure that, in simple terms, would remove the board that governs higher education from its position in the state constitution as the governing board for the state university. It’s a second bite at the apple, after a highly similar measure — Ballot Question 1 in 2020 — was narrowly rejected by voters in a referendum proponents later criticized as “too confusing.”
If SJR7 passes this session, voters will get another chance to decide whether to keep regents baked into constitutional language — but now with more than two years of internal tumult at the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) as backdrop.
Still, at a hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas) stressed to the committee that the measure would not repeal “any existing statutory provisions” for regents, including those mandating an elected — not appointed — board.
“There is no difference than many other boards set forth in the Nevada Revised Statutes,” Dondero Loop said, referring to the governing arrangement created by SJR7.
Whether those arguments persuade critics remains unclear, as lawmakers are also set to consider a slate of major potential changes to NSHE. That includes one bill, AB118, that would reduce the size of the board and reduce the length of regents’ elected terms.
Perhaps more controversially, another sweeping higher education omnibus, SB347, would radically shift the nature of regents altogether, splitting the system’s authority between community colleges, state colleges and the constitutionally created “State University,” while also creating appointed individual boards of trustees for those colleges.
Dondero Loop told the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee that she and bill co-sponsor Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama (R-Las Vegas) were “encouraged” by steps regents and NSHE administrators had taken to “correct” long-running disputes between the Legislature and the system.
“Even so, as policymakers we must be focused on building long-standing and stable systems of governance,” she said. “Not on individual personalities.”
As it was in 2020, the push to remove the regents from the constitution was backed Tuesday by a coalition of business groups, including the Vegas Chamber and the Council for a Better Nevada, a philanthropic group that has long locked horns with the regents.
In opposition, once again, are the regents, represented in hearing testimony by board Vice Chair Joe Arrascada, who likened the push to resurrect the failed Question 1 to 2020-style election denialism.
“This new resolution is blatantly questioning the voters' will,” Arrascada said. “To many of your constituents, this do-over is similar to an election denier of the same 2020 cycle.”
SJR7 cruised relatively easily through the 2021 legislative session, passing 20-0 in the Senate and 30-11 in the Assembly, with most opposition concentrated in the minority Assembly Republican caucus. Should it pass again this year, voters will next see the measure on the 2024 ballot.
Editor’s Note: This story appears in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2023 legislative session. Sign up for the newsletter here.