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An In-Depth Look At Ballot Question 1

The front of the Nevada State Legislature building.
David Calvert
/
The Nevada Independent
The Nevada Legislature as seen on May 16, 2017.

For 156 years, Nevada’s constitution has included the Board of Regents. That’s the 13-member panel of elected officials tasked with governing the state’s higher education system and the eight institutions that fall within it. Now, in 2020, Nevadans will get to vote on whether that inclusion was the right choice with Question 1, a ballot measure that would pull regents from the state constitution.

Question 1 started life as Assembly Joint Resolution 5 — shorthanded as AJR5 — back in 2017. Both then, and now, the state lawmakers who drafted it say it’s a badly needed update to an outdated system that too often tries to circumvent oversight from the Legislature with its constitutional status.

That includes AJR5’s author, former Assemblyman Elliot Anderson. Anderson says the push is about enforcing the checks and balances inherent to all other levels of American government.

“You know, the Legislature is imperfect, the Board of Regents is imperfect,” Anderson said. “And the whole idea is that imperfect bodies of government are supposed to be able to hold each other accountable, and so that’s really what Question 1 is all about.”

Though it’s not mentioned explicitly in AJR5, much of the push for this change can be traced back to 2016.

In April of that year, a records request from the Las Vegas Review-Journal revealed that the system’s then-Chancellor, Dan Klaich, had drafted a memo to legislators under an outside consultant’s letterhead during heated renegotiations of the system’s funding formula in 2012.

Legislators decried the memo as a deliberate deception meant to obfuscate and mislead the committee in charge of approving the new formula.

Steven Horsford, who at the time served as Nevada Senate Majority Leader and chaired the committee in question, told the Review-Journal that the incident showed the Legislature “wasn’t in charge” and was being used as “tools” by the higher education officials.

Klaich denied wrongdoing at the time and said the newspaper had misinterpreted emails meant as jokes. Still, he resigned within a month of that story’s publication, and AJR5 was born the next year.

Opponents to Question 1 have pushed back on those arguments, saying instead that Question 1 would lead to increased bureaucracy and more red tape, all without improving outcomes for students.

Among those opponents is former Chancellor Thom Reilly.

“How will this make the system better for students?” Reilly asked The Nevada Independent. “How will that advance our graduation rates and retention rates and our research portfolio and 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.”

Other regents have broadly echoed Reilly’s concerns. Regent Trevor Hayes has called the measure a “solution in search of a problem,” and openly criticized the legislature in a meeting after lawmakers voted to cut tens of millions from the system’s budget, amid otherwise massive budget shortfalls triggered by the pandemic.

Regent Laura Perkins, meanwhile, says she’s concerned about the lack of a plan for exactly what comes next if Question 1 is passed.

“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.”

Backers of Question 1 have largely dismissed these concerns. That includes Chet Burton — a former president of Western Nevada College who also served a stint as the system’s Chief Financial Officer —  who argues that voting against the change meant accepting 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.”

Hanging over all of this is another debate: should Nevada even elect its regents at all?

Nevada is among 29 states that use a single board to govern every higher education institution, but it’s the only one that still elects every single one of its regents in a general election.

Most other states utilize some kind of appointee system, often relying on governors or legislatures to appoint or approve who gets to be a regent.

Though Question 1 wouldn’t do anything to directly affect the structure or election of the board, both opponents and proponents agree that removing regents from the Constitution would make it easier for the Legislature to do just that later down the line.

Some regents say it’s only a matter of time before the switch to appointments is made.

“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-day job. It just gets difficult to represent that many people kind of over the years.”

That’s Regent Jason Geddes. For Geddes and other critics, the bill and others like it are proof-positive of an underlying push to undo the system of elected regents. But the battle lines on the issue don’t neatly align with those surrounding Question 1.

Ex-chancellor Reilly, for instance, says he has no issue with a mixed elected-appointed board; but ex-assemblyman Anderson has been a vocal critic of SB354, and even went so far as to help kill the bill once it made it to the Assembly in 2019.

Among the broader debate over Question 1, there are few clear delineations among those for and against the change. Students and faculty across the state have taken to both sides, and as of September, few groups have taken official stands for or against the measure.

That’s not to say no groups have picked sides. Both the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Nevada AFL-CIO have endorsed Question 1, with the former sending at least $10,000 to a pro-Question 1 super PAC earlier this year.

As a legislatively-referred Constitutional Amendment, Question 1 needs to pass through the legislature twice and be approved by voters before taking effect. After it sailed through both the 2017 and the 2019 legislative session, the only hurdle remaining is this November’s vote.

If you want to read more about Question 1, you can find Jacob’s reporting at The Nevada Independent.

As a note of disclosure, the Board of Regents for the Nevada System of Higher Education owns the license to this station.

KUNR's Jayden Perez adapted this story for web.

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