Regents chair approved $9,500 for outside lawyer following dispute between regent, chief of staff

After two public flare ups between Regent Lisa Levine and Board of Regents Chief of Staff Dean Gould this summer, Board Chair Mark Doubrava quietly approved an expenditure of $9,500 for an outside lawyer to provide “legal advice and counsel to the Regents in anticipation of possible litigation,” according to documents obtained through a public records request by The Nevada Independent. 

The precise nature of the outside investigation remains confidential, and mention of parties involved and the full scope of the agreement was redacted from a copy of an engagement letter between the attorney, Apalla Chopra of the Los Angeles-based firm O’Melveny & Myers LLP, and the Board of Regents. 

But statements from Doubrava last month confirmed that Chopra’s involvement comes in response to incidents between Levine and Gould during board meetings in July and August. 

Gould did not respond to several requests for comment, though an email obtained separately by The Nevada Independent shows Gould later filed a formal complaint alleging a hostile work environment on Aug. 17, three days after Doubrava wrote to regents to inform them of Chopra’s hiring. Gould’s complaint itself, however, has remained confidential and specifics remain unknown. 

As board chair, Doubrava maintains a broad mandate to “perform and all duties assigned or delegated” to him under system bylaws, and Chopra’s hiring wouldn’t be the first use of outside counsel by the board. Regents last turned to an outside attorney in 2016 after an investigation by the Las Vegas Review-Journal revealed then-chancellor Dan Klaich had drafted a letter to legislators under a consultant’s letterhead during funding formula negotiations in 2012.  

But the board chair has otherwise provided few communications to other regents on either the specific nature of Chopra’s advice and investigation or on the costs associated with her hiring. 

Several regents contacted Thursday by The Nevada Independent said they had not been made aware of the $9,500 fee for Chopra’s services. That includes Regent Trevor Hayes, who also criticized the lack of a public meeting of the full board to assess Gould’s conduct. 

“[Gould’s] behavior at that [Aug. 7] meeting was not appropriate,” Hayes said over text message. “The entire board should determine what, if any, actions should be taken.”

In a written statement, Doubrava said he could not comment on the events in question because of confidentiality restrictions, but otherwise praised Chopra’s expertise. 

“Ms. Chopra is an expert in employment law and Title IX, and has regularly represented institutions of higher education,” Doubrava said. “Our process will be guided by the principle of fairness as we serve NSHE's overall mission to serve our community of students, staff, and faculty members.”

In a letter sent to regents on Aug. 14, Doubrava said Chopra was hired explicitly because of “events which occurred on July 23 and August 7, 2020, in our Board meetings.”

That first incident involved an exchange between Gould and Levine in which Gould took issue with Levine’s extended use of the new business portion of the agenda. Interrupting Levine, Gould characterized her statements as “lectures” to the board, prompting Levine’s reply that she would try “not to lecture and be mansplained again.”

At the next meeting on August 7, following a heated debate over then-looming federal changes to the Title IX rules governing campus investigations of sexual misconduct, Gould interrupted Levine amid a dispute on parliamentary procedure and said: “I don’t want to man-speak, but I will have to if you continue to child-speak so please stop.”

The second incident exploded on social media, with a viral tweet containing a video of Gould’s remark drawing swift pushback from, among many critics, a number of the state’s most prominent Democratic politicians. That includes Gov. Steve Sisolak — who appointed Levine to the board — as well as Rep. Dina Titus, for whom Levine once worked as a congressional staffer.

Gould later denied any wrongdoing in a statement, instead referencing the July 23 comment from Levine and decrying it as “unprofessional and embarrassing” and “not an appropriate way for an employer to speak to an employee.”

Speaking directly to his comments on August 7, Gould’s statement said only that he became frustrated with “her lack of decorum” and that he “should not have stooped to her level of acrimony.”

Outside of the incidents involving Levine, Gould is not without his critics. A letter from the Nevada Faculty Alliance sent to regents on Aug. 14 called Gould’s behavior “disrespectful and belittling” and charged that the chief of staff and previous board chairs had misapplied and misinterpreted rules across the last several years. 

“While the recent incident is a personnel issue with the Chief of Staff, who serves at the pleasure of the Board of Regents, it is also related to broader issues of the Board’s operations that could be improved for the benefit of transparency and accountability of the Nevada System of Higher Education,” the letter said. “We call upon the Board of Regents to address both aspects of the problem to begin to repair endemic concerns” 

Gould has been absent from board meetings since Aug. 7, including missing a special meeting on Aug. 21 and the first day of the regent’s two-day quarterly meeting on Sept. 10.  

Correction, 9/11/20 at 11:34 a.m. - An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the Nevada Faculty Alliance as the Nevada Faculty Association.

The Indy Explains: Question 1, a measure that would strike the Board of Regents from the Constitution

The Nevada Legislature building

Question 1: The Nevada Higher Education Reform, Accountability and Oversight Amendment

Formal name: Assembly Joint Resolution No. 5 (79th Session)

Type of measure: Legislatively referred constitutional amendment

Groups organized: Yes on 1 for Higher Education

Other groups in favor: Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, Nevada AFL-CIO

Summary of what it does: Question 1 would remove language including the Board of Regents from Article 11 of the Nevada Constitution, instead requiring the Legislature to provide by law for the “governance, control, and management and the reasonable protection of individual academic freedom.” The amendment would also clarify certain legal provisions related to money provided by federal land grant funds provided as part of the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act, in part by updating the state’s legal language to match congressional amendments made in the time since and by removing references to the Board of Regents.  

What other states have done: Governance structures for higher education systems vary widely from state to state, but Nevada is among 29 states that utilize a single administrative board tasked with overseeing all higher education institutions across the state. Among those states, Nevada is the only one that elects all its regents through a general election. Most others, in part or in full, rely on appointments by their respective governors or legislatures. 

Arguments for passing Question 1: Proponents of Question 1 — a broad coalition of ex-legislators, business interests and some students and faculty — have claimed the measure is a necessary reform that will provide greater legislative oversight, and therefore greater accountability, over the Board of Regents. 

Formally citing legal cases from 1948 and 1981 and informally pointing to incidents such as a funding formula controversy under former Chancellor Dan Klaich, those in favor of Question 1 charge that past regents or chancellors too often use their “antiquated” constitutional status as a legal shield for bad behavior. 

“The regents have not made their case of why they think they’re better at holding themselves accountable than the rest of us,” Elliot Anderson, a former assemblyman and the author of AJR5, said. “Because in the rest of American government, no one gets this special protection from accountability — only the regents do.”

In testifying for the measure in 2019, Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse told lawmakers that the change was a direct response to “events of the past several years,” including efforts by NSHE to “control, alter or misrepresent” information presented to the Legislature. 

Though not explicit, Woodhouse’s testimony is a likely reference to an incident in 2012 in which Klaich and other higher education officials allegedly drafted a letter to legislators under a consultant’s letterhead, an act that lawmakers both then and now say was a deliberate attempt to mislead and obfuscate the high-stakes process of revamping the system’s byzantine funding formula.

Originally revealed through a public records request by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2016, Klaich later denied any wrongdoing and said emails construed by the RJ as malicious were intended as jokes. In a written statement later delivered to regents before his resignation, Klaich said that, though he was involved in drafting the letter, the final language was still approved by consultants before being sent to the legislative committee in question.

Anderson also stressed that the measure would not put the Legislature “in control,” of higher education — something implied by some regents during a board meeting in July. He said that, under a regulatory scheme created through Question 1, Regents would still handle regular administration of the higher education system, while the Legislature instead ensures the board remains subject to the “checks and balances and the law just like every other agency.”

“You know, the Legislature is imperfect and the Board of Regents is imperfect,” Anderson said. “And the whole idea is that imperfect, by the government, is supposed to be able to hold each other accountable and check and balance each other.” 

Also criticizing the elected nature of the Board of Regents and a lack of nimbleness and adaptability, the Yes on 1 campaign has claimed that the amendment will modernize the higher education system and “help us save taxpayer dollars from waste,” specifically taking aim at a $26 million administrative budget and a six-figure salary for new Chancellor Melody Rose. 

However, that budget figure is likely misleading, according to NSHE administrators, as it includes nearly $19 million budgeted for the so-called “system computing center,” which covers human resources, accounting and other software used by all NSHE institutions. 

There is also the issue — or in the view of some Yes-on-1 proponents, the non-issue — of what comes next should voters ultimately approve the amendment. 

The ballot question proposes no policy changes outside pulling the board from the Constitution. But Chet Burton, former NSHE CFO and former president of Western Nevada College, argued the lack of specificity provided flexibility on those specifics later down the line, adding that a vote against Question 1 was “approving the status quo.” 

“A lot of people don't know what the final product will look like,” Burton said. “But I think that at least it gives us the opportunity to put together a working group and bring the best minds together and look at how other states handle it.”

Arguments against passing Question 1: Though there are no formal or organized opponents to Question 1, several regents and former Chancellor Thom Reilly vocally opposed the measure as it worked its way through the Legislature. In public testimony and in interviews with The Nevada Independent, these critics say Question 1 does little in the way of furthering educational outcomes for students or otherwise improving higher education governance in the state. 

“How will this make the system better for students?” Reilly asked The Nevada Independent. “How will that advance our graduation rates and retention rates in our research portfolio in our workforce force output? No one has been able to answer that. So if we're going to do a pretty significant change in governance, there should be a better articulation about how that's going to advance the system.”

Reilly also cast doubt on the prospect that placing higher education in the realm of any other state agency would make it more efficient or “nimble,” calling it instead “extremely bureaucratic and onerous.” Pointing specifically to the “multiple levels of bureaucracy” required by the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee for state agencies, he said specifically that the direct distribution of coronavirus relief dollars earlier this year by NSHE “can never happen in the state” if the system operated like an agency.

Regent Trevor Hayes, likewise, called the measure a “classic example of a solution in search of a problem” and Regent Laura Perkins raised doubts about the lack of any clear definition for policies that could result from Question 1’s passage. 

“I see it as trying to build the plane while you’re flying it,” Perkins said. “There’s no numbers or positive proof that the system that may or may not come out of this is better than the system that we have now.”

Opponents have also claimed that Question 1 represents a legal backdoor that would allow the Legislature to do away — either in part or in full — with elected regents.  

Regent Jason Geddes, among the longest-serving regents on the board, pointed to SB354 — a failed 2019 bill that would have reduced the number of regents to nine, including four gubernatorial appointees — as evidence of a broader legislative end-game.

In his view, Geddes said that the elected nature of regents under the current constitutional structure — one that he believes is ultimately responsive to constituents — could not be recreated under the framework laid out by SB354, or theoretically allowed by Question 1.

“Right now there's 13 of us, we represent just shy of 300,000 people,” Geddes said. “And we drop it down to nine, and we actually would only have five representing the entire populace of the state — it's pretty much a congressional district for a part time, $80-a-[meeting] job. It just gets difficult to represent that many people kind of over the years.”

Though SB354 was passed in the Senate by a 15-6 margin, the measure was controversial and found little support in the Assembly, where it died in committee. 

Even now, not all proponents of Question 1 agree on the question of an appointed board. That includes Anderson, who worked to quash that bill and called the issue a “separate question” and a “kind of a fiction that is presented for the benefit of the public.”

Though no faculty group has as-yet taken a formal position on Question 1, some Nevada faculty have vocalized past concerns that the amendment may not adequately protect academic freedom.

In a letter sent to lawmakers during deliberations on AJR5 in 2019, the Nevada Faculty Alliance listed at least eight instances in which political pressure was used to influence the nature of appointed higher education governing bodies, including a 2016 move by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin to oust trustees and the president at the University of Louisville.

But some faculty proponents have otherwise downplayed the issue, countering that Question 1 would, to the contrary, expand protections for academic freedom through placing such protections directly into the state Constitution. 

How did Question 1 qualify for the ballot? As a legislatively referred constitutional amendment, Question 1 was overwhelmingly — though not unanimously — approved by two successive legislative sessions as Assembly Joint Resolution 5. First introduced in 2017, AJR5 was passed 38-4 in the Assembly and 18-2 in the Senate. In its second run through the Legislature in 2019, the measure was approved by margins of 36-5 in the Assembly and 20-0 in the Senate. 

Primary funders: A PAC formed in support of Question 1, Nevadans for a Higher Quality Education, reported raising $115,500 through the second quarter of 2020. Nearly all of that money, $105,000, came in two contributions from the Council for a Better Nevada, a political non-profit helmed by Maureen Schafer, the former chief of staff for the UNLV Medical School. First formed in 2006, the Council for a Better Nevada in part funded a 2014 effort to create a Nevada Court of Appeals and the 2016 gun background checks initiative

The remainder of the PAC’s fundraising came from a $10,000 contribution from the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce and $500 from Republican state Sen. Keith Pickard’s campaign committee. 

Through the second quarter, the PAC reported spending $87,500, of which nearly half — $40,000 — went to the Mellman Group, a Washington, D.C.-based pollster with a long history of polling Nevada races. (The firm has also done polling for The Nevada Independent.) The PAC also spent another $30,000 on California-based firm Winner and Mandabach, which advertises itself as a specialist in the realm of ballot-measure campaigns.  

Financial impact: Cannot be determined. Because Question 1 would likely lead to legislative changes to NSHE and its administrative structure, an analysis by the state could not determine a financial impact of the measure without knowing what, precisely, those changes would entail. 

Status: The measure was approved by legislators in both the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions, leaving November’s vote as the only hurdle remaining before the amendment would take effect. 

For more breakdowns of ballot measures, laws or other complex topics, check out other Indy explainers here.

Correction, 9/7/20 at 11:59 a.m. — A quote from Regent Jason Geddes originally misstated the compensation for regents as "$80-a-day." Regents actually receive $80 per meeting, with four quarterly meetings scheduled per year.

Updated, 9/9/20 at 10:32 a.m. — This story was updated to include an endorsement of Question 1 by the Nevada AFL-CIO announced on Wednesday, Sept. 9.

The more things change: Regents again dealing with cuts by lawmakers

In 2007, higher education in Nevada enjoyed its highest funding levels ever, its coffers holding more than $641 million in legislatively approved dollars or nearly $800 million in today’s money. 

Within two years, revenue had collapsed under the weight of the Great Recession. Multiple rounds of cuts from then-Gov. Jim Gibbons and the Legislature dropped annual appropriations to just $500 million. Over the course of four years, the system cut roughly a third of its overall budget.

Even with millions in federal bailout money cushioning the blow, deep cuts were made to nearly all facets of the state’s higher education system as colleges and universities gutted support services, eliminated entire degree programs and laid off faculty.

Today, students, faculty, administrators and the regents feel a sense of deja vu, but now delivered orders of magnitude faster.

“It came out over a couple of years versus one big kick and you know, with a recession, you could see things trending downwards, and you weren't sure where entirely it was going to go,” Regent Jason Geddes said. “But it wasn't just jumping off the cliff and wondering when you're going to come back up.”

As the immediate public health impact of the coronavirus came into sharp focus beginning in March and into April and statewide revenue estimates plunged — eventually totaling roughly $1.3 billion — Gov. Steve Sisolak told all state agencies to prepare a range of budget plans as the state braced for impending cuts. 

By April, regents had done just that, approving three plans based on different revenue scenarios proposed by the governor, including cuts of 6 percent, 10 percent and 14 percent for the 2021 fiscal year, as well as a flat 4 percent cut for the nearly-finished 2020 fiscal year. 

These plans were initially pitched, in part, as a deliberate avoidance of the layoffs and program cuts made during the recession. Only under the worst of those scenarios — 10 percent and 14 percent — would the system contemplate staff furloughs and student fee increases, relying instead on gutting operating budgets and implementing wide-ranging hiring freezes. 

“Back then we tried to focus as much money into the classroom as we could and ended up cutting things like counseling, writing centers, math centers, tutoring,” Geddes said. “They ended up inhibiting student success and student performance across the board, and I think that was an issue that we probably that we're not looking at doing again.”

But in June, after Sisolak announced the system would need to cut 19 percent of its 2021 budget — 5 percent higher than original worst-case estimates — regents scrambled to fill the hole with a one-time injection of money from a “market fluctuation account,” a kind of rainy-day market fund used normally for deferred maintenance or special projects.

Then came the first special legislative session of 2020, and with it, steeper and steeper cuts. With no federal bailout appearing on the horizon and the political prospects for potential revenue increases a political pipe dream, legislators and the governor turned instead to slashing the state’s general fund by nearly $700 million

Those cuts included yet another cut of $25 million, a number negotiated down from an original proposal to cut an additional $50 million overall. 

As that money evaporated, so too has the hope that layoffs or curricular review could be avoided. 

“Avoiding the layoffs and avoiding curricular review was at the 14 percent level, and then we had to hit 19 [percent] with very little notice,” Geddes said. “And then after the session, we’re above 23 percent. When we talked about ‘holding the line,’ our threshold was right around 20 percent, so I think those are discussions we'll have.” 

In public meetings, some regents have chafed at the rush to cut higher ed instead of other state programs, saying instead that legislators “don’t understand” either the value of higher education or the long-term ramifications of the cyclical disinvestment by the state. 

Among those critics is Regent Trevor Hayes, who, like several of his board colleagues, has complained of a mistrust of the board and its action dating back years. 

“We need to be able to provide services to more students now, and we're going to have to do it with significantly less,” Hayes said. “The Department of Health and Human Services got a big cut when they have more people needing their services — and it's tough to reconcile that.”

Pointing to years of growth that came in the wake of the Great Recession, Hayes touted the broader success of Nevada’s higher education institutions, including steady enrollment gains at the community colleges and Nevada State College and the designation last year of both UNR and UNLV as Carnegie R1 research universities. 

“There's so much good going on in higher ed during that time [post-recession], and I believe it was part of the recovery that we've been hearing about,” Hayes said. “And it just kind of cuts it off at the knees.”

But not every regent believes the fault lies with the Legislature. At a regents meeting last week, Regent Lisa Levine called attacks on the Legislature “poor politics,” especially if lawmakers are forced to make even deeper cuts in the coming months and years. 

Levine, a former congressional staffer and NSHE outsider appointed earlier this year to fill the seat of Regent Sam Lieberman after his unexpected death, told The Nevada Independent that she was “surprised” once she began work on the board.

“Certainly the special session showed that there were definitely a lot of areas that need to be worked on for NSHE to be more transparent and accountable, so that legislators and the public know where the money's going and feel confident that if they put more resources into NSHE, that it's going to go into investing in higher education where it should,” Levine said. 

Levine said that NSHE as an institution “just has a systemic mistrust issue,” adding that the blame for that issue did not fall on anyone currently at the helm of the system. 

“But I think that you see that that mistrust has hindered NSHE’s ability to be as strong of an advocate as they want to be for students, faculty, staff, and all those whom higher education should serve,” Levine said. “And that's why we’ve got to get it right, especially if the economy doesn't turn around as fast as we all hope it does.”

Complicating the relationship further is a looming vote on Question 1, a proposed constitutional amendment that, put simply, would remove the regents from the Constitution. Critics — including many regents and NSHE administrators — have charged that the move is nothing but a maneuver to open the door to regents appointed by the governor and a change that does little to affect higher education outcomes. 

Supporters of the move, however, have charged that the system has long cloaked itself under the protection of its “antiquated” constitutional status, and that Question 1 would provide badly needed legislative oversight. 

Now, even two weeks after legislators wrapped up budget negotiations, more tough decisions lie ahead for NSHE. A regents meeting set for Friday, August 7 will determine the first steps of exactly how the system will cover the additional $25 million cut. 

Students, faculty caught in the middle

As budget negotiations have played out, drastic cuts have once again thrown outcomes for students and teachers into doubt. 

“We feel like NSHE has been the whipping boy,” Kent Ervin, a chemistry professor at UNR, said. “And we know there's been a poor relationship between the NSHE administration at the system level and the Legislature, but ultimately these budget cuts come down to badly hurting state employees and hurting students and the services we can provide to students.”

At UNR, the long term ramifications of the 2010 cuts proved especially damaging as administrators — most notably then-provost, now-President Marc Johnson — organized a curricular review process that slashed whole programs and consolidated others, triggering layoffs in the process. 

In April, Johnson made a point during meetings with regents to note that UNR would avoid any further reviews, but added that any cuts would set back momentum at the university “quite a bit.”

Now, with a clearer picture of the budget, that aversion is likely no longer possible. In an NSHE memo sent to regents during early debates over the additional $25 million cut, UNR administrators said they expected to implement $1.65 million in “staff reductions,” with most of the cuts focused on appointed and classified staff. 

For Greta de Jong, a history professor at UNR, the continued disinvestment in higher education has been a “short-sighted” move, especially in the context of the history of higher education and its broader relationship to the economy. 

“If you look back at the mid-20th century, you can see that the decades when the U.S. invested heavily in higher education were the most prosperous decades this nation has had,” de Jong said. “And that's because the public sector and the private sector aren’t separate, they don't compete with each other — they’re complimentary to each other.”

Amid these negotiations, frequently stuck on the outside-looking-in are the tens of thousands of students across NSHE’s eight institutions. 

Manifesting on social media, sometimes even as tongue-in-cheek memes, many have expressed an as-yet unending frustration with being stuck with the blunt end of these cuts, especially as they continue to pay thousands, or sometimes tens-of-thousands in tuition and fees for their degrees. 

“Students are feeling the pain, we have been impacted by this pandemic at every single level,” Joshua Padilla, UNLV’s student body president said. 

Complicating the money problem is the rapidly-approaching reality of a college semester amid the coronavirus, and what that semester will look like. Institutions across Nevada have implemented various plans with largely the same result, shunting many classes online while leaving some intact as hybrid or fully in-person experiences. 

Pointing to a mix of expensive tuition, shrinking services and the realities of learning in the midst of COVID-19, Padilla said it felt as though students were being “hit from every single corner” with less and less institutional support. 

“Knowing the administration, faculty — we know, they want to help us and they want to figure out ways to either give us more money or help make the resources that they do have be more effective for us,  but then they can't even do that,” Padilla said. “Because once you get to the NSHE level, and then even at the state level, you know, they're getting hit with other things. So, I mean, it really sucks.”

For Ervin, there is still a small — perhaps temporary — silver lining: “It feels like 2008, it does not yet feel like 2010 or 2011.”

“But with what we just heard from GDP and unemployment staying high, things just look really dire for the next biennium unless there's suddenly a vaccine and an economic turnaround,” Ervin said. “What I really fear for is the next budget cycle, where we no longer have any cushions.”

Updated, 8/2/20 at 11:20 a.m. - This story was updated to address a transcription error in a quote attributed to Regent Lisa Levine. Levine said "... more resources into NSHE," not "more resources into energy."

In special meeting, Board of Regents brace for additional budget cuts; limited campus reopenings remain on-schedule

Students at UNR's Joe Crowley Student Union

As the economic and public health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic continue to ripple, several regents on Thursday excoriated millions in legislatively approved budget cuts, charging that legislators left them few options with just weeks before the state’s seven colleges and universities plan on reopening their campuses for limited in-person instruction.  

“If those 63 people are in charge of higher education in this state, God help us,” Regent Trevor Hayes said, referencing a ballot measure that would remove the regents from the Constitution. “There is no understanding in Carson City. I don't know what happens to people when they get in the building, but they do not understand the importance of higher ed funding, or they think we can just keep raising tuition on the backs of our families and our students to supplement the money that they take away.”

That ballot measure, Question 1, has been routinely framed by the regents and the chancellor as a measure that does little to reform higher education but grants the Legislature more control over the board. Proponents, however, have charged that it provides needed oversight to a body long mistrusted by the other branches of state government. 

Also among the legislative critics was Board Chair Mark Doubrava, who told regents that watching budget discussions in both legislative chambers was “quite disturbing for me to see.”

“My take on the Legislature was, ‘We’re going to hold your chancellor and your CFO [Andrew] Clinger hostage, and we’re going to say we want to take $50 million more on top of what’s already been approved, and we can cut some deal quickly and reduce it to $25 million,” Doubrava said. “I just don’t think that’s a way to run the state or Legislature.”

The Nevada System of Higher Education has been planning for steep budget cuts ever since state revenue projections plummeted in the spring — projections that prompted Gov. Steve Sisolak to request that all state agencies draw up plans for possible cuts of 6, 10 or 14 percent for the 2021 fiscal year, in addition to a mandated 4 percent cut to the near-finished 2020 fiscal year. 

In a sweeping set of initial budget reductions approved in April, NSHE slashed operating budgets, froze hiring system-wide and sought to prepare for the implementation of furloughs and increased student fees should they be required to follow the most dire of those early estimates. 

But proposed reduction measures have only expanded over time as the severity of the state’s budget crisis came into sharp focus this month. In a special legislative session meant to plug 2021’s $1.2 billion statewide budget hole, legislators and the governor approved an additional $25 million dollar cut, raising the total amount cut from NSHE’s 2021 budget to more than $135 million.

Those cuts did not sit well with Hayes, who said it was unfortunate that legislators do not understand the importance of higher education “no matter how much we try to explain.”

“We, as higher ed, are a key to the solution to the problem of an economic downturn,” Hayes said. “We’re going to help to dig that out, we’re going to help to get that even higher when we’re going through the good times. 

But Regent Lisa Levine pushed back on that notion, saying in part that calling the Legislature the problem “is just poor politics,” especially if legislators might weigh even deeper cuts in the near future. 

“People don't trust [NSHE] to do the right thing with the money, and we need to show that we're trying,” Levine said. “And I'm very grateful to hear that there are small ways that we've already shown improvement … but that is just one way that we need to be thinking.”

Levine, who was appointed to the board earlier this year to replace Regent Sam Lieberman after his unexpected death, said that she hoped future budget decisions included discussion about “transformative change” and that the board must “really think critically about how we're making these cuts.”

Thursday’s budget discussion was information-only, however, and much of the decision-making will lie in an upcoming regent’s meeting scheduled for August 7. 

Limited reopenings remain on-track, for now

Regents also heard presentations from each institution on how they planned on executing limited reopenings of individual campuses to accommodate the return of at least some in-person instruction for the fall semester. 

Following a list of 10 guidelines laid out by NSHE, those reopening plans followed similar themes. Broadly, every institution has moved most classwork online, embracing a mix of synchronous classes — those taught at regular times through video software such as Zoom or BlueJeans — and asynchronous, or more traditional online classwork that is absorbed at different times for different students. 

Institutions have also broadened resources for instructors, created guidelines for testing and contact tracing, implemented mask mandates and created additional rules for social distancing while on campus. 

Still, regents expressed some concern that — despite robust planning — in-person instruction may remain elusive or outright impossible amid spiking coronavirus cases statewide. 

“We can appreciate how these plans are fluid and nimble, but I have to say — I mean there's a chance that we may have no students on campus,” Doubrava said. 

With the start of the semester now roughly one month away, Chancellor Thom Reilly said the system will continue to monitor conditions and follow the guidelines laid out by state, local and federal health authorities, adding that each institution is “prepared to pivot” should the need arise. 

Still, even amid the drastic rise in coronavirus cases, Nevada’s higher education system is among the majority of institutions nationwide that have opted for at least a partial reopening. A tracker maintained by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows roughly half of U.S. colleges still plan for in-person fall semesters, while another 34 percent have pushed for a hybrid model and just 12 percent decided for an online-only semester. 

Regents name Keith Whitfield as new UNLV president

regents meeting

The Nevada Board of Regents unanimously approved the appointment of Keith Whitfield as UNLV’s newest president at a special meeting Thursday, providing a replacement for interim President Marta Meana and ending the two-year vacancy triggered by the sudden departure of former President Len Jessup in 2018.

Whitfield, who will also be UNLV’s first Black president, comes by way of Wayne State University in Detroit, where he serves as provost, senior vice president of academic affairs and a professor of psychology. He previously served as a vice provost for academic affairs at Duke University, where he was also a professor of psychology and a research professor. 

UNLV President Keith Whitfield (Courtesy/NSHE)

In discussing his confirmation as president, Regent Trevor Hayes, who chaired the search committee, praised his academic work, saying in part that he couldn’t remember a candidate with as many published papers as Whitfield.

The terms of Whifield’s four-year contract stipulate a $500,000 base salary per fiscal year, as well as $8,000 per year for a car allowance, $18,000 in a housing allowance and a $5,000 host account — all effective Aug. 24.

Whitfield will be the 11th president at UNLV, but already the third to take the job since 2009, not including two acting presidents who also served over that time span. 

His predecessor, Jessup, left in an acrimonious divorce from the university in April 2018, blaming his exit on “personal and professional” attacks from regents and Chancellor Thom Reilly. Meana, at the time the dean of the university’s Honors College, took over as acting president in July of that year. 

She had expressed an interest in applying for the permanent position in the latter half of 2019, but announced in February that she was bowing out of the process. At the time, she said that her plans “did not align” with the need for a new permanent president to make a long-term commitment to UNLV.

The decision by regents to name a new president was an expedited one, spurred by the possibility that one of the three external candidates for the job could accept a new position elsewhere should the selection process drag on for too long. 

It also comes as one of three high-level replacements among top jobs at the Nevada System of Higher Education and its institutions. Regents last month selected Melody Rose to take over as system chancellor in the fall, while a decision on a new permanent president at UNR is expected later this year. 

Whitfield will take over the job at a time of ongoing uncertainty both for UNLV and for the state’s higher education system at large, as the still-rippling economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have gutted revenues and triggered widespread budget reductions that have only deepened as the pandemic continues to drag on. 

In a coda to last week’s special legislative session called to plug the state’s $1.2 billion budget hole, legislators piled on an additional $25 million cut to NSHE. It raised the total amount cut for fiscal year 2021 to roughly $135 million and, for the first time, raised the specter of layoffs at the state’s seven colleges and universities. 

Additional revenue losses at each institution caused by the pandemic have only deepened the financial crisis. At UNLV alone, administrators estimated more than $62 million in lost revenue and additional expenditures for the 2021 fiscal year.

Regents approve, rank proposals for higher ed construction projects, though state funding remains uncertain amid budget cuts

The UNLV Sign in front of the Hospitality Hall under construction

The Board of Regents approved and prioritized proposals for a number of capital construction projects across the eight institutions of the Nevada System of Higher Education on Friday, though the ultimate fate of the projects will rest with the state’s Department of Public Works. 

Such proposals come at a time of incredible financial strain on public agencies, which are expected to see billions of dollars in budget shortfalls over the current two-year budget cycle as a result of economic slowdown driven by the coronavirus. Fiscal analyst Jeremy Aguero told The Nevada Independent that the holes could be between $700 and $900 million for the fiscal year ending in June, and between $1 billion and $2 billion in the 2021 fiscal year, together cutting the state’s $9 billion budget by nearly a third. 

Regent Trevor Hayes noted that even though regents spent roughly two hours hearing and deliberating on the order of projects, “the sad part is, we spent a lot of time on this and based on the budget situation, we may not get anything or very little.”

No new budget details were available at Friday’s meeting, though regents had previously approved budget cut scenarios of 4 percent in 2020 and either 6, 10 or 14 percent in 2021. In total, those proposals could cut between $68 and $124 million from the system's budget over the next two fiscal years.

At the top of the list for construction projects is a new engineering building at UNLV, for which the university will request an additional $13.1 million to match university fundraising and kickstart construction.

Other projects approved by the regents include, in order of priority: 

  • $3.3 million for an expansion of Great Basin College’s welding lab
  • $1.5 million for the renovation of Western Nevada College’s 22-year-old Marlette Hall
  • $30 million in additional funding for deferred maintenance costs for Life Safety and ADA projects at a number of NSHE institutions
  • $2 million for the Winnemucca Health Sciences and Technology building at GBC
  • $12 million for an academic village complex at Nevada State College
  • $6 million for the renovation of CSN’s Sahara West facility
  • $40 million for an interdisciplinary science and technology building at UNLV
  • $6 million for a Fernley Campus for WNC
  • $8 million for campus infrastructure improvements at NSC

Regents also prioritized proposals for a number of planning expenses related to the construction of new capital projects further down the line, including: 

  • $6 million for a joint TMCC-DRI Science Commons and Research Center meant to provide facilities to both schools and foster a growing number of STEM students at Reno’s community college
  • $3.8 million for a “STEAM” academic building at Nevada State College
  • $5 million each for new buildings at UNLV for the Business College and School of Fine Arts
  • $4.1 million for a new “Northwest Campus” for the College of Southern Nevada, meant to service the community near Sky Canyon and Providence
  • $150,000 for the Rogers Science and Technology Building for the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas
  • $2.3 million in expenses for the Pahrump Valley campus of GBC
  • $3.4 million in planning funds for a new life sciences building at UNR

Regents also reviewed the results of an annual space utilization study Wednesday, which largely found buildings at the state’s community colleges to be underused — or sometimes entirely unused — on Fridays and Saturdays. 

Some regents, including Rick Trachok, said the community colleges should look to prioritize the use of such space ahead of the construction of new facilities. 

“As we're going into a tight budget situation with significant cuts like we are, I think it's incumbent upon all of our institutions to more efficiently use the space that we have, particularly with the community colleges,” Trachok said. “I think it's important for them to be focused on when the students need the class time, not when we think it's convenient for us or our faculties or staff to be offering the courses.”

But Great Basin College President Joyce Helens pushed back, saying the vacancy study could not show certain limitations on certain spaces, pointing specifically to the unsuitability of a welding lab to host an English class. 

Indy 2020: Biden leads in Nevada poll; Democratic hopefuls prepare to return to the Silver State

Your Nevada 2020 election newsletter. Please read, forward and subscribe.

Good morning, and welcome to Indy 2020, a biweekly newsletter focused on the 2020 presidential election in Nevada. A reminder that email subscribers get early access to this newsletter, so be sure to subscribe and tell your friends. It’ll be peachy.

There’s an image that I haven’t been able to get out of my head for the last 24 or so hours, and that’s of former Vice President Joe Biden as Schrödinger’s cat. (Thanks to this Atlantic article by Edward-Isaac Dovere.)

It neatly puts a bow on some of the things I’ve been mulling over the last week: How Biden seems to be flailing in Iowa and New Hampshire but has a sizable lead (at least so far) in Nevada, according to our poll and another released by Emerson last week. How Nevada might not really be a battleground state if Biden wins, but maybe it could be if Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren does. How with 102 days until Nevada’s caucus it seems like everything — Democratic candidates winning and losing, Trump winning and losing, Nevada being a battleground state and not — is at the same time happening and not happening inside that box.

The good news is that (eventually!) we get to open the box.

As always, a reminder to reach out to me with any tips, story ideas, comments, suggestions, and your favorite thought experiment — am I the only one still stuck on Maxwell’s demon (especially as it was used in The Crying of Lot 49)? — at

Without further ado, a download of the recent 2020 happenings in Nevada.


The Indy poll: I had many thoughts on our latest Indy Poll — most of which are summed up in this story and thread — but I’ll briefly note some of them here. The overall takeaway is that former Vice President Joe Biden leads Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by 10 points in Nevada, though his backers reported being less strongly committed to him than Warren and Sanders supporters are to their candidates. Warren was also the top second choice candidate, with 21 percent support, followed by Sanders at 19 percent.

The caveat: Only 44 percent of respondents said they were certain of their first choice pick, with 55 percent saying they still might choose someone else.

Filing deadlines: It’s all good and well to be campaigning in the Silver State, but candidates still have to actually file with the Nevada State Democratic Party in order to participate in the caucus process. I’m told that only South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, billionaire Tom Steyer, Biden, California Sen. Kamala Harris, and Sanders have filed so far.

Candidates have until Jan. 1 to file, which means that it isn’t too late for a late bloomer(berg) to get into the race here. (For what it’s worth, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has indicated that he’ll skip the four early states, Nevada included, if he gets into the race.)

Sound and fury, signifying nothing: Last week, the Las Vegas City Council passed a controversial ordinance that makes sleeping or camping in downtown Las Vegas a misdemeanor crime, but not before several Democratic presidential hopefuls had a chance to weigh in with their opposition to the measure.

I noted in the last newsletter that Warren and Steyer had joined former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro in opposing the proposed ordinance. On Monday, two days before the hearing, they were joined by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker

The following day, Sanders joined in, with his campaign promising to use its email list to encourage its supporters to turn out to oppose the ordinance outside City Hall on Wednesday, soon followed by Biden, who tweeted that he was “proud to stand with folks in Las Vegas fighting against a proposed ordinance that effectively criminalizes homelessness” and Harris, who said “criminalizing homelessness is not the answer.” Castro also urged residents to call their city councilmembers.

Then, the morning of the vote, Buttigieg also came out against the ordinance with a statement: “Homelessness is a moral crisis that defies easy solutions, and the best way to address it is with smart investments in housing, supportive services, and health. I stand with members of the homeless community and advocates in opposing this ordinance."

But it was ultimately to no avail. The City Council passed the measure 5-2. (One of the “no” votes was Councilman Brian Knudsen, who backs Harris.) Warren, Castro and Sanders all came out right after the City Council’s vote, condemning it. Booker and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet criticized it the day after the vote.

The state of the #WeMatter state: Castro, appearing on MSNBC on Sunday, called for changing the order of the early nominating states.

“I actually believe that we do need to change the order of the states because I don’t believe that we’re the same country we were in 1972,” Castro said. “That’s when Iowa first held it’s caucus first, and by the time we have the next presidential election in 2024 it’ll have been more than 50 years since 1972.”

By my math, if Iowa is no longer first and New Hampshire is no longer second, that would leave a certain #WeMatter state with the first nominating contest in the nation.

Staffing up (and down): It’s been nearly two weeks since Harris’s campaign announced that it would be laying off or redeploying staff from headquarters, as well as New Hampshire, Nevada and Iowa. But Nevada still hasn’t seen what New Hampshire has, with the campaign essentially halting all activity there.

I asked Harris while she was here over the weekend whether she still plans to redeploy staff from Nevada to Iowa. She gave me two non-answer answers.

“I care deeply about this state, I have worked closely with this state years before I ran and decided to run for president and I'll continue to focus resources on the state of Nevada,” Harris said, followed by, “I'm focused on Iowa, to be sure, there's no question. It's the first in the nation primary, and I'm all in on Iowa. I'm leaving Nevada to fly back to Iowa but Nevada is going to always be a priority for me.”

This comes as Castro has also announced that he is shifting his resources, with an increased focus in the coming weeks on Iowa, Nevada and Texas.

Ramping up before the first-in-the-West dinner: Buttigieg’s campaign here tells me that they plan to knock 10,000 doors as part of a weekend of action ahead of the Nevada State Democratic Party’s first-in-the-West event Sunday, where 13 Democratic hopefuls, including the South Bend mayor, will appear. (More on that below.)

Staffers and office count survey: I reached out to all the campaigns with a presence here to find out their latest staff and office census. Not all responded, but here’s what I got from those who did:

  • Biden: About 40 staff, with the campaign in the process of actively trying to hire more, and five offices.
  • Booker: About 20 staff, with plans to add more in the next few weeks, and two offices in Las Vegas and Reno.
  • Buttigieg: 46 staff, with plans to add more to the team over the next week, and 10 offices. (That includes six organizers full time in rural Nevada, and offices in Pahrump, Fallon and Elko.)
  • Castro: four staffers, and one office.
  • Harris: 26 staffers, and four offices.
  • Sanders: 72 staffers, and eight offices, with plans to open an Elko office soon.
  • Steyer: More than two dozen staffers and two offices.
  • Warren: More than 50 staffers, and nine offices.
  • Yang: 14 staffers, and two offices.

Michael Bennet was also here: The Colorado senator recently made his second trip to the state to speak at the HLTH Conference here in Las Vegas. “I’m running because I think I’ve got an agenda I think can not just unite Democrats but also win back some of the 9 million people who voted twice for Barack Obama and once for Donald Trump and that’s what it’s going to take to win purple states like Colorado and Nevada and Iowa and win not just the presidency but the Senate as well,” Bennet told CBS News’ Alex Tin outside of the conference.

Medicare for all delegates: Activist Christine Kramar, who was a Sanders national delegate from Nevada in 2016, has started a new PAC focused on electing delegates who support Medicare for all to the Democratic National Convention. It’s called the Medicare for All Delegates Network. (Thanks to my colleague, Riley Snyder, for spotting the FEC filing.)

Kramar told me the goal is to get half of the delegates elected from each state to support Medicare for all.

“The project is about beating the second ballot in the Presidential nomination process at the national convention,” Kramar said in a text. “We may end up helping to elect delegates from multiple Presidential candidates who become no longer bound to those candidates as all delegates are on the second ballot to unite around the candidate with the best Medicare for all plan.”

What she’s talking about here is if no candidate has enough delegates at the Democratic National Convention to clinch the nomination, all delegates that were bound at the state level become unbound and can support whichever candidate they want. The goal here would be that those candidate could pool their power to back a candidate who supports Medicare for all.


Nevada’s battleground status may depend on Biden: Republicans here in Nevada are gearing up for the general election. But several Republican operatives on the ground say that whether Nevada is actually in play may come down to whether the Democrats choose Biden as their nominee.

Harris campaigns with Culinary: The California senator was the first to be invited by the politically powerful Culinary Union to a town hall. There, she threaded the needle with her union-friendly Medicare-for-all plan.

Nevada still a battleground, DNC says: My colleague Humberto Sanchez was at a DNC briefing last week, where one party official said that Trump faces “historic headwinds” here. “There’s not a lot of evidence that he can successfully compete and win there,” he said.

Yang and Steyer join the pod: My colleague Jacob Solis sat down with tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang recently to talk about universal basic income and Yucca Mountain. I chatted last week with Steyer, who called Warren’s health care plan a “huge risk” and weighed in on contamination associated with the Anaconda Copper Mine.

Steyer stumps in Nevada: While in town last week, Steyer hosted a town hall in Henderson where he talked about health care and veterans. Indytern Shannon Miller was there.


Staffing changes and office openings

  • Booker Campaign Manager Addisu Demissie opened the campaign’s Reno office on Oct. 29, in addition to participating in a housing clinic tour.
  • Warren opened a new office in Southwest Las Vegas on Nov. 2. (Former Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani was there and also to kick off the campaign’s weekend of action.) Her campaign also opened its Elko campaign office on Nov. 9, its eighth campaign office in the state, with plans to open a ninth in the near future.
  • Steyer opened his Nevada headquarters in person on Nov. 3. On Wednesday, his son, Sam Steyer, attended the grand opening of the campaign’s Reno office.

New endorsements

  • Warren was recently endorsed by Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles and Bob Fulkerson, founder of the Progressive Alliance of Nevada.
  • Team Buttigieg on Monday announced the formation of “Nevada Leaders and Military Communities for Pete,” a group of servicemembers, veterans, members of military families and others who are backing Buttigieg in Nevada.
  • As I first told you on Twitter, Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo — who plans to run for Nevada Supreme Court next year — will withdraw all of his endorsements, which include Biden, before the judicial filing period in January "in order to comply with judicial canons."

Upcoming candidate visits

  • Self-help author Marianne Williamson is in town through Wednesday. She’s scheduled to speak to residents of the Siena Retirement Community in Summerlin on Tuesday and host a meet-and-greet at UNLV on Wednesday.
  • Thirteen Democratic presidential hopefuls are slated to appear the Nevada State Democratic Party’s first-in-the-West event at the Bellagio on Friday night. Those who will attend are Bennet, Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Castro, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sanders, former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak, Steyer, Warren and Yang.
  • Biden has announced that he will also be in Las Vegas on Saturday and Elko on Sunday before the event. The former vice president will also be back in Nevada on Dec. 10 and 11.

Surrogate stops

  • Biden campaign manager Greg Schultz was in town on Oct. 29.
  • Biden campaign co-chair Rep. Cedric Richmond, the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, attended the Washoe Dems Virginia Demmler Honor Roll dinner in Reno on Nov. 6. The following day, he met with local community members and officials in Las Vegas.
  • Sam Steyer also attended the Virginia Demmler Honor Roll dinner.
  • Chasten Buttigieg, husband of Pete Buttigieg, was in Nevada on Nov. 2, kicking off a canvass in Southwest Las Vegas, meeting with organizers and touring Positively Kids — a nonprofit that focuses on meeting the needs of medically fragile kids and developmentally delayed children — with Assemblywomen Michelle Gorelow and Shea Backus.
  • Several surrogates traveled to Elko on Saturday for the Elko County Democratic Party’s Roosevelt/Kennedy Dinner, including Carolyn Booker, mother of Cory Booker; Valerie Biden Owens, Joe Biden’s sister and longtime political advisor; and Doug Emhoff, Harris’s husband.
  • Carolyn Booker also hosted a meet and greet in Winnemucca on Saturday, as well as a breakfast in Elko and a meet and greet at the campaign’s Reno office on Sunday.
  • Emhoff also made stops in Winnemucca and West Wendover while in northeastern Nevada.
  • Second Lady Karen Pence will be in Las Vegas on Thursday for a Latinos for Trump event at the East Las Vegas Community Center.

Other election news

  • The Nevada State Democratic Party opened its first field office in the Historic West Side on Oct. 29. The opening was attended by Assemblyman Will McCurdy, the party’s chair.
  • The party also hosted a weekend of action over the weekend, with caucus trainings in Las Vegas, Reno and Carson City. The party also plans to host veterans-centered training at Veterans Village on Nov. 13 and a women-to-women phone bank at a party field office.
  • Sanders’ campaign announced that it is “rapidly approaching” 2 million attempted voter contacts in the state.
  • Warren’s team hosted an afternoon tea service event called “Putting the Tea in Persist” with a conversation with leaders of the arts, entrepreneurial, and nonprofit communities. The campaign plans to hold a community information and listening session with Assemblyman Howard Watts, who has endorsed Warren, at Pearson Community Center today focused on issues that impact the Black community.
  • Buttigieg’s campaign plans to hold volunteer summits on Nov. 22 in Las Vegas and Dec. 6 in Reno, with the goal of training of hundreds of volunteers.


Reshuffling on the Board of Regents: Clark County Regent Trevor Hayes won’t run for re-election to Board of Regents, Indytern Shannon Miller reports.

Supreme Court changes: Shannon also reports that Associate Chief Justice Kristina Pickering will seek re-election in 2020, while Chief Justice Mark Gibbons will not.

Independent redistricting commission:  The League of Women Voters is pushing for a ballot initiative that would create an independent redistricting commission to combat partisan gerrymandering, my colleague Riley Snyder reports.

Ranked choice voting for state Senate: Riley also talked to a teacher in rural Nevada who is proposing a measure to amend the Nevada Constitution by substantially overhauling the structure of state Senate elections and including elements of ranked choice voting.

SOS to CCC: Former Democratic Secretary of State Ross Miller, who lost a high-profile bid for attorney general in 2014, will run for Clark County Commission, Shannon reports.


Page, Hayes seats on Board of Regents will be open

Trevor Hays and Cedric Crear sitting in chairs

Clark County Regents Kevin Page and Trevor Hayes have said that they will not run next year for re-election to the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) Board of Regents, which has jurisdiction over eight Nevada colleges and universities and more than 107,000 enrolled students.

Regent Sam Lieberman confirmed over the phone on Friday that he will run for re-election. Washoe County Regent Rick Trachok said on Thursday that he was undecided.

Page has been subject of negative headlines in recent months. In June, the Las Vegas Sun reported on emails from 2015 suggesting that Page pressured UNLV administrators to ease an academic requirement for a relative. In May, a Las Vegas Review-Journal story raised questions about the business purpose of several expensive meals that Page and other regents billed to NSHE.

Trachok, who has not decided whether he will run for re-election, served as chairman of the Board of Regents from 2015 to 2017. Currently, he works as an attorney at a private law firm in Reno, and has served as chairman of the Nevada Board of Bar Examiners since 2000.

Trachok was first appointed to the Board of Regents by Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2010 and was retained in the 2012 and 2014 elections as the representative for District 10. Prior to that, he was a deputy with the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office.

District 2 Regent Trevor Hayes said via text last week that he would not be running for re-election, but he declined to provide a reason. Most recently, Hayes has worked as a communications director for UnitedHealth Group, Nevada’s third-largest health insurer. Before UnitedHealth Group, Hayes practiced as a private attorney and as a prosecutor with Clark County district attorney’s office.

Sam Lieberman, who affirmed he would defend his District 5 seat, was elected to join the Board of Regents in 2015. He was chair of the Nevada State Democratic Party from 2008 to 2011 and was appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval to serve on two state advisory boards in 2015.  

Regents serve six-year terms, with a maximum of two terms, and enjoy certain powers under the Constitution that some say have allowed them to escape legislative oversight. A constitutional amendment that was proposed by the Legislature to limit those powers, AJR5, will be up for a statewide vote in 2020.

Clarification: Kevin Page is unable to run for re-election because of term limits. Page served four terms as chairman of the Board of Regents.

From caution to elation, lawmakers assess Sisolak's State of the State priorities

Nevada lawmakers expressed everything from elation to skepticism after Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak unveiled his policy priorities Wednesday in the State of the State address, highlighting key issues — including state worker collective bargaining and minimum wage increases — that are likely to spur the most tension during the legislative session.

Progressives framed Sisolak’s speech, which included promises to treat teachers like professionals, raise their salary 3 percent, and always support and defend the Affordable Care Act, as a sea change after 20 years of having a Republican governor helming the state.

“If you would have asked me five years ago ... standing here the same night, if I would have heard that out of a governor’s mouth, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said Annette Magnus of progressive advocacy group Battle Born Progress. “To see a governor take these things seriously — things like saying, ‘I don’t even question climate change’ — those things are refreshing.”

Democratic Assemblyman Edgar Flores said he was “incredibly excited” to move the conversation about collective bargaining for state workers forward. The concept is among Sisolak’s most audacious because of the untold millions of dollars it could cost the state.

“It’s a conversation that I think a lot of people in this building had, but they could never really go past the coffee table,” Flores said. “And now it’s a conversation that’s going to happen in the caucus room, it’s a conversation that’s going to happen in our committees, and at that global scale with our leadership. Whether or not it’s easy is a different question, but at a minimum, we know it’s a real conversation.

On the education front, Sisolak expressed willingness — if not specifics — to overhaul the state’s 50-year-old education funding formula. Much of the details of that expensive project will fall to lawmakers such as Democratic Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee.

“I know that Sen. [Mo] Denis is leading the charge, and he and I work very well together. He’s working with a lot of consultants, and we’re going to be rolling up our sleeves,” Thompson said.

Another thorny issue promises to be the Read by Grade 3 initiative, which pours resources into literacy programs but also will hold children back if they cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade. Sisolak took Sandoval’s recommendation to boost funding for the initiative, but lawmakers last session sought to remove the retention element, and Thompson suggested he wanted significant changes to it.

“I don’t even want to say tweaks. We are really revisiting it, and we see some areas to improve it,” Thompson said. “But that’s the pivotal age, because you know that if kids don’t learn to read and write, that’s when the school to prison pipeline starts. Kids drop out of school. It’s traumatic.”

For the most part, Democrats left the Assembly chambers Wednesday pleased with Sisolak’s address and the prospect of working with the first Democratic governor in 20 years. The party holds a super-majority in the Assembly and are a seat short of a two-thirds majority in the state Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson also said his relationship with Sisolak was “refreshing,” compared to past sessions with Republicans in control of the governorship, noting that he and Sisolak had worked together in Clark County government and grew closer during the state’s process to woo the Raiders to relocate to Nevada in 2017. He said he was one of the first legislators to endorse Sisolak’s gubernatorial aspirations.

“We’re going to have some differences during session, absolutely, but I think that our relationship will prevail and we’ll get some good things done,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson, who unsuccessfully sought a minimum wage increase last session, declined, as Sisolak did, to put a dollar figure on the goal of raising the minimum wage. He said he wanted to analyze what neighboring states have done and work with businesses — and stressed that any proposal would need to include a tiered wage system where businesses that are small enough would not be required to pay the higher wage.

“There’s going to be a lot of things that folks are going to look at, massage. We’ve just got to look at what a livable wage is and whatever that number is,” he said.

John Vellardita, a Sisolak ally and executive director of the Clark County Education Association, offered a more measured assessment of the governor’s education agenda. The union boss said he wasn’t surprised by the budget numbers — including doubling the amount of money for weighted funding to $70 million, which Sandoval recommended in December — but expects communities to demand more money.

“This is the start,” he said. “It’s not the end game.”

The new governor’s address mentioned reforming portions of the state’s criminal justice system, but did not mention a recent package of 25 recommendations from the Crime and Justice Institute approved by a panel of lawmakers and criminal justice leaders.

Democratic Assemblyman Steve Yeager, who chaired the advisory panel and will head the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said he hadn’t talked to Sisolak directly about the proposals, which the institute estimated could save the state up to $640 million in prison costs over the next decade. Yeager said he was pleased Sisolak broached the topic during his speech and promises to add new staff to the state’s Parole and Probation division and expanding a pilot program on inmate education.

“I think it really shows a joint focus on making sure we get this right,” he said. “I think it’s the first time criminal justice reform has probably been mentioned, maybe ever, in the history of Nevada, so that’s certainly encouraging and tells me we’re on the right path.”

Accolades poured in from other Democrat-friendly organizations as well. Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada and NARAL Nevada applauded Sisolak for allotting $6 million in his budget over the next biennium for family-planning services.

“On the campaign trail, Sisolak was a tireless fighter for abortion access and care for women and families, and tonight, in his first State of the State, he made it clear that creating a vision of reproductive freedom for Nevadans will be a key issue as governor,” said Caroline Mello Roberson, NARAL’s state director.

Clean energy and environmental advocates jumped on the bandwagon, too, offering a cheery assessment of Sisolak’s goals in that realm. The governor said he will, at a minimum, sign legislation increasing the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent by 2030. The RPS dictates how much electricity energy providers must procure from renewable sources.

Atkinson said he was pleased with the new governor’s priorities, and said he was able to include suggestions into the address itself, including more funding for apprenticeships and including the word “minimum” in reference to a 50 percent Renewable Portfolio Standard.

“I’ve said it’s a negotiated process, and it is. That’s why he put the line in there, a ‘minimum,’” Atkinson said. “He’s very open to the fact it could higher. Will we get to 100 this session? I don’t know. But I think that’s a goal that our state should be trying to achieve.”

Nevada System of Higher Education Regent Trevor Hayes was enthusiastic about Sisolak’s plan to fund two new academic buildings at Southern Nevada colleges.

“The teacher shortage we have every year in Clark County — including the education building at Nevada State is a great way to solve that,” he said. “And we put a lot of money and effort in the last couple of years into the med school, but what people forget is when we hire doctors, every doctor we hire in the state needs four, five or six employees to support them, from nurses to nursing assistants to technicians, and this is going to help them build that.”

With some exceptions, Sisolak’s outline for the state’s budget largely kept intact the two-year budget proposal offered in November by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. Several Republican lawmakers said they were pleased by that decision from Sisolak, who has described himself as a moderate and frequently praised Sandoval on the campaign trail.

“Governor Sandoval had handed him essentially a fully baked budget,” Senator Keith Pickard said. “I’m a little unnerved by how much more money they are looking to add, given he said he was not going to be raising taxes.”

Other Republicans expressed cautious optimism toward Sisolak. Republican State Sen. Scott Hammond said he “loved the education stuff,” but “the devil is in the details.”  

Pickard and other Republicans expressed concern over some of Sisolak’s proposals on labor policy, specifically the governor’s push to allow collective bargaining for state employees and reverse 2015 changes to the prevailing wage in public contracts for construction projects. State law requires that a prevailing wage — an hourly wage determined by state officials to be the average paid in a certain geographical area by a certain profession — be paid on government construction projects, but a 2015 change lowered the wage to 90 percent for K-12 and higher education projects and raised the project threshold from $100,000 to $250,000.

That 2015 change riled unions, who have been staunch supporters of Sisolak.

“Ultimately I think that [prevailing wage] will add a lot of costs to school construction,” Pickard said. “I’m not fundamentally opposed to the concept of prevailing wage. But I think in action, it’s going to be hard to implement. If we do implement it in the way it sounds like they want to, we’re going to be busting budgets.”

Hammond said he was concerned that the collective bargaining of state employees would likely be a “costly endeavor.”

“I’m kind of concerned with that zeal to do (it) without really talking it through,” he said. “Of course I look forward to a hearty debate on that, but that probably gave me a little bit of a pause.”

James Settelmeyer, the Republican state Senate Minority Leader, said he supported Sisolak’s proposed three percent wage increase for state employees but opposed collective bargaining.

“I bet you he puts that out two to four years so he doesn’t have to deal with the budgetary hits in this budget,” Settelmeyer said. “We’re giving them a three percent raise. We gave them three percent last time. I understand some of the concerns and issues. But the added costs and the burdensome paperwork, I don’t necessarily agree with.”

Settelmeyer said he also opposed Sisolak’s same-day voter registration proposal. He said he was concerned Californians would potentially register in Nevada and tip close elections.

“It’s not registration; it’s fraud,” he said. “Call it what it is.”

Even after an election that put Democrats in control of both the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, Republicans including freshman Assemblywoman Melissa Hardy said Sisolak’s call for bipartisanship was welcome.

“As far as working with Assembly colleagues and the Senate, I’m hopeful,” she said. “I feel positive now that we can work together and iron out those details and disagreements.”