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Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents quarterly meeting at UNLV on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Last updated: June 16th, 2020 - 5:44pm

A Nevada coalition has launched a campaign to push a ballot question that would remove the Board of Regents from the state Constitution, which supporters argue is necessary to “modernize” oversight of higher education.

Nevadans for Higher Quality Education is a bipartisan coalition backing “Yes on 1,” a campaign seeking to pass Question 1 on the ballot in November. The initiative would strip the board of its “fourth-branch-of-government” status by subjecting it to oversight by the Legislature. The Board of Regents was established by the state Constitution in Article 11, the “Education Article,” and given authority over the state’s higher education system 

“I think the most important thing to emphasize is that this would not really change anything about the way the higher education system would function,” Carol Lucey, former president of Western Nevada College, said on Monday. “Primarily, this is a technical issue with the Constitution.”

AJR5 has already passed through the first step of a five-year process to amend the Constitution, having been approved by the Legislature in two consecutive sessions. All that is left is voter approval in this year’s general election.

Organizers say the coalition plans to launch a full-scale campaign to inform voters about the ballot question leading up to November. Part of the challenge will be educating voters about what it means that the Board of Regents is part of the Constitution and how that allows the board to avoid legislative oversight, which Lucey says is needed for a board she has observed to be “not effective, not efficient, certainly, and not transparent.”

Nevada is the only state that has a higher education system governed by a single board with constitutional status. According to the coalition, the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) has a $29 million budget used for administrative costs rather than university funding.

While a press release from the coalition on Monday stated that the system’s budget is “larger than any other state’s,” the coalition has since clarified that the initial statement was erroneous, and the budget is “larger than any other similarly sized state.” The coalition compared Nevada's budget with those of higher education systems in five other states with populations between two and three million people.

Tom Kaplan, a member of the Council for a Better Nevada and supporter of “Yes on 1,” says the large number of administrative costs is one flaw with the system that increased oversight could correct.

“By comparison, states like Virginia have five times the number of colleges and universities, yet one-third of the employees in their system-wide office. We deserve better,” Kaplan said in a press release on Monday.

According to Andrew Clinger, chief financial officer for the system, the $29 million budget that is cited is “not accurate.”

“It’s misleading because we don’t have a $29 million system administration budget,” Clinger said. “What they’re including in that… is what we call the system computing center.”

The system computing center budget, which was $18.8 million for the financial year 2019/2020, covers data systems and finance, HR and payroll records for all of Nevada’s higher education system institutions and universities, as well as services for rural health care facilities, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Transportation and multiple K-12 school districts in the state. 

All of these expenses and services are included in the system’s budget under AB543.

While the coalition does not yet face opposition by any organized groups, organizers anticipate that there will be those who campaign against the initiative going forward. 

Even prior to coming before the Legislature, the initiative faced opposition, including by the higher education system, the Board of Regents and Chancellor Thom Reilly, who said any changes enabled by removing the body from the Constitution would not be different from those enacted through the normal legislative process.

Detractors also have said that the measure would allow the Legislature to transition seats on the Board of Regents from elected to appointed positions, taking away the ability of Nevadans to select their own regents.

Proponents of the measure argue that the text of the initiative would not do that.

“It has nothing to do with that,” Lucey said. “It has nothing to do with their right to vote for their regent. Nothing would change in that respect. What would change is there would be some oversight of what the board has been up to over the years.”

The text of AJR5 does not make that change, but an increase in legislative control over the board could allow for that change to be made.

Supporters of the initiative include The Vegas Chamber, the Council for a Better Nevada and the Nevada Farm Bureau, among others

Updated, 6/16/20 at 5:44 p.m. –This article was updated to reflect Nevadans for Higher Quality Education corrected its earlier misstatement that the Nevada System of Higher Education's budget was higher than any other state's.

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