Legislators consider bill to limit number, terms of higher ed regents
The legal underpinnings of the Board of Regents, which governs the Nevada System of Higher Education, are back on the menu this session with AB118.
The bill would knock down the number of regents from 13 to nine, and reduce the length of their terms from six years to four. Sponsor Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) couched the bill as an accountability measure — allowing regents to face re-election twice, rather than once, during statutory 12-year term limits — and argued that the board is significantly larger than other equivalent education boards, or even county commissions.
But the bill also comes as an echo of past attempts to retool how the regents function in the wake of controversy, personnel disputes and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in big-money contract buyouts and severance.
Presenting the bill Thursday, Watts told the Assembly Education Committee that the frustration from years of regents-related controversy and tension with legislators “has resulted in a level of distrust from the Legislature” that led to funding cuts and projects going unapproved.
“And at the end of the day, I think all of us recognize that's punishing students,” Watts said. “It's punishing the wonderful educational mission that the system has for the sins or the oversights of the board members.”
A similar measure failed to gain traction in 2019, passing through the Assembly but stalling in the Senate. Part of the hangup over the 2019 bill came in a provision that would have created a split board of elected and appointed regents, in addition reducing the number of regents.
The size of the Board of Regents has generally increased over the last several decades, jumping from 9 to 11 in 1991, then again from 11 to 13 in 2001 — both after redistricting cycles.
AB118 is designed not to affect any regent sitting on the board, and Watts told the committee that the redistricting process necessitated by AB118 could take up to two additional legislative sessions (2025 and 2027, if we’re going by regular session math) to sort out.
That timeline was constructed in large part, Watts said, to avoid booting regents from the board while serving their original term, and would allow a greater runway to inform new regents of the new term structures ahead of future elections.
Still, the bill stopped short of creating requirements for elected regents or creating a position for a student regent — in part because of what Watts described as “constitutional limitations that need to be sorted out.”
Those constitutional limitations could be undone as soon as next year, should legislators pass SJR7, a revival of a constitutional amendment that would remove the Board of Regents from the Nevada Constitution, and if voters approve it next November. (A similar measure, Ballot Question 1, was narrowly rejected by voters in 2020).
Backers of the bill — namely the Vegas Chamber, the Nevada Health and Bioscience Corp (a private company in charge of constructing the UNLV medical school building over the last several years) and the Council for a Better Nevada, a philanthropic advocacy group long critical of the regents — lauded AB118 as “a start” toward putting more control over higher education back in lawmakers’ hands after repeated controversies.
But opponents of the bill, especially Regents Chair Byron Brooks and Vice Chair Joe Arrascada, argued that the current board had moved beyond the controversies of its past, and that the bill’s language threatened to shift too much representative power to Clark County.
“The bill sponsor mentioned numerous unsubstantiated accusations of the past,” Arrascada said, referencing in part the outside investigation of a hostile work environment complaint from the former chancellor, who later left the system with a $600,000 severance. “Yes, the past.”
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.
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