Longtime regent, former Assemblyman Jason Geddes dies at 56
Jason Geddes, one of the longest-serving recent members of the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents and a one-time state assemblyman, died late Tuesday, sources close to Geddes’ family confirmed Wednesday.
Geddes was 56. He is survived by his wife of 36 years, Cindie, and son Joseph.
Reached by phone Wednesday, several of Geddes' close friends told The Nevada Independent that the former regent had suffered for three years from the effects of Long COVID, with several attributing his death to the disease.
Those friends remembered Geddes as a stalwart public servant, a quiet man who served Nevada and loved his family.
In a statement, the Washoe County School District Interim Superintendent Kristen McNeill — where Geddes worked — said he “gave so much to our community and state through his environmental and sustainability work.”
UNR President Brian Sandoval, in a post to X, formerly Twitter, said that Geddes’ life story was “the story of Nevada.”
“In his words and actions, in his personal and professional lives, in his many achievements and in the countless friendships he forged throughout our state, Jason was Nevada personified,” Sandoval wrote. “It should not go unnoticed that Jason almost always eschewed a traditional tie for a bolo tie that was in the shape of Nevada. This was who he always was. This was how he proudly chose to represent himself.”
Gov. Joe Lombardo, also posting to X, said Geddes left an “indelible legacy in our state and in the hearts of many.”
Geddes was elected in 2002 and served in a single legislative session in 2003 before being appointed to the Board of Regents — which governs public universities and colleges in Nevada — by Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn in 2006. An environmental scientist by training, Geddes was later elected as a regent in 2008, a position he held until he left, term-limited, at the end of 2022.
Born in 1967 in Winnemucca and raised briefly in tiny Gabbs, Nevada — a town in northern Nye County — Geddes spent much of his life in the Reno area. He attended Traner Middle School and Sparks High School before heading to UNR to study biochemistry in the 1980s. There, for three years he was elected to student government, and even spent time as a part of a U.S.-Soviet Leadership Exchange that sent him to meet Baltic and Soviet representatives, as he put it in a campaign biography from 2022, “just as the Union was breaking apart.”
He stayed at UNR to get his doctorate — this time in environmental sciences and health — and later worked as a petroleum chemist for the state, and an environmental affairs manager for UNR and the Washoe County School District.
As part of that environmental work, Geddes’ dissertation homed in on a 1991 chemical spill in the Sacramento River, a work he later attributed, in part, to legislative changes designed to prevent future spills.
‘He was a statesman’
In the Legislature, Geddes was a member of the natural resources, education and judiciary committees, where he helped pass legislation aimed at reducing the state’s carbon footprint.
Reached by phone Wednesday, several of Geddes’ longtime friends described him as a “statesman.” Tim Crowley, now a lobbyist with Lithium Americas and who went to college with Geddes, called him “balanced and fair and a very caring soul.”
“But he didn’t shy away from getting into the hottest of all issues,” Crowley said.
Geddes — a Republican — had entered a Legislature consumed by a battle over taxes. Guinn had proposed a near-$1 billion tax increase — the first increase of any kind in more than a decade, and one Guinn warned was necessary in order to avoid millions of dollars in budget cuts as the looming Iraq War, in a potential echo of 9/11, threatened to upend state tourism revenues.
Guinn cast the proposal as a step toward repairing what he repeatedly called a “broken” tax system in Nevada, one, he argued, too exposed to volatile revenue swings from gaming and tourism.
But lawmakers balked, and the two-thirds majority needed to approve a tax increase never materialized during the regular session. The impasse deteriorated so quickly and so deeply that Guinn and then-Attorney General Brian Sandoval asked the state Supreme Court to force the Legislature to pass a budget.
The Supreme Court did just that in early July, leading eventually to a special session compromise 11 days later — but only because five Assembly Republicans, Geddes among them, joined Democrats to approve the tax increase.
“He was in a very tough spot in the Republican Assembly caucus … but he went into the hardest of issues and treated everyone with respect,” Crowley said. “He based his decisions on facts, not emotion. And he left all those discussions with relationships intact, which is something that just doesn't happen anymore. I guess he's old school, in that regard.”
In the wake of the tax fight, anti-tax Assembly Republicans boasted at the time that the fracas would help secure a majority in 2004 (it did not; Republicans lost three seats in the next election). Geddes was among the primary casualties that year, losing a re-election bid by more than 9.6 percentage points.
A 16-year stint at the top of higher education
Two years later, Guinn would appoint Geddes to the Board of Regents, again as questions swirled over the long-term funding health of education across Nevada. Those questions would only crystallize with the Great Recession and the legislative sessions that followed, as lawmakers enacted deep and wide-ranging cuts to NSHE. He would stay as the state recovered, and as Nevada’s universities grew to new heights — namely a new medical school at UNLV and top R1 research designations at UNR and UNLV.
With a tenure that stretched across five chancellors, four governors and two economic crises, Geddes was often a leading voice in major decisions that have rippled throughout NSHE for more than a decade. But Jim Richardson, a longtime lobbyist for the Nevada Faculty Alliance and friend of Geddes, said he was, at the same time, “quiet and unassuming.”
“He accomplished so many things as a student body leader, as a legislator where he got some really valuable important legislation through,” Richardson said. “He was a very level headed person on the Board of Regents for years — was a real leader there and he helped improve higher education. And if you interacted with him, you’d never know this.”
In the later years of his tenure, Geddes was a critic of the long-running legislative cuts to higher education budgets, advocating repeatedly for restorations that stretched back to the 2008 financial crisis. But it was passion that Geddes had long held, according to Robert Dickens, emeritus director of government relations for UNR and a longtime university lobbyist.
In an email, Dickens recounted the story of Geddes as UNR’s student body president, attending a joint budget committee meeting in which “matters looked bleak” and new cuts loomed.
Then, Dickens wrote, Geddes went to the microphone to plead with lawmakers, placing a straw, a can opener and can on the exhibit table.
“To the Joint Committee, now having seen the exhibits [Geddes] began waving hands, waving off what they feared was coming,” Dickens wrote. “Jason said, loud and clear, ‘Cut those budgets and I will open and drink this motor oil right here!’”
Chairing the board during the earliest months of the COVID pandemic — one of three yearlong stints he spent leading the regents — Geddes also backed key pillars of the system’s pandemic response, notably a move to mandate the COVID vaccine for students and employees.
He was also sharply critical of a proposed ballot question from state lawmakers that would have curtailed the Board of Regents and expanded executive and legislative power of higher education. After he left the board, he remained critical of SJR7, another legislative effort that effectively revived the ballot question after voters narrowly rejected it in 2020.
Rita Laden, a former vice president for student life at UNR who worked with Geddes as a student and later as a regent, said in an interview that Geddes had always been a leader as long as she had known him. She called him ethical, honest and tenacious, that in all her years in higher education — “I did not meet another [student leader or regent] who was better than Jason.”
Laden said he was always prepared, always reading “every word of every document.” It was a skill, she said, that meant he could always “out-debate anyone else in the room.”
“Higher ed is about thinking,” Laden said. “You have to be a thinker, to think through the complex issues of higher education. And Jason Geddes was a thinker, he would find facts to support or refute his thinking, and he was always willing to change his mind.”
Update: Jan. 10, 2024 at 12:43 p.m. — This story was updated to include additional interviews and details about Geddes’ life.