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May 28, 2015

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WHERE I STAND:

Chamber goes to the mountain: UNLV

Muhammad has gone to the mountain.

As the story goes, when Muhammad realized that Mount Safa either could not or would not come to him, his appropriate reaction was to go to the mountain to proclaim the greatness of God. That story has been retold in myriad ways, always as a punch line for what was thought an impossible or, at the very least, extremely difficult undertaking.

I invoked that thought when I was privileged to be among a group of distinguished visitors at UNLV on Wednesday.

The purpose of the early morning gathering was to give UNLV President Neal Smatresk and his colleagues, college deans and college students, the opportunity to tell guests what was really happening at UNLV in an up close and personal way. A meeting with this group of visitors was long overdue.

Let me explain. For years, although it seems forever, it has been a matter of community folklore that the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, the Nevada Development Authority and pro-business advocacy groups have uniformly and unhesitatingly maintained an anti-tax position that has permeated the halls of the Nevada Legislature and every other legislative body in the state. The result has been that continuous cries for help in the form of meaningful and stable revenue sources (taxes) have gone unheeded.

Instead, because the pro-business lobby has been so powerful, the best the Legislature, for example, could do was muster up the courage to cut budgets of state programs — especially those that serve the most needy among us — and leaving alone to count our “blessings” those of us who make and used to make substantial profits.

That has led to a rather uneasy coexistence between those who consume state tax dollars and those who refuse to pay them. The global economic meltdown that took us by surprise three years ago, coupled with increasing deficits at the state and local levels because tax receipts are plummeting, has created a need for revenue that can no longer be ignored.

As traditional allies of the new Republican philosophy that “taxes allow for big government so we should just starve the sucker,” chambers of commerce in this state have always been seen as protectors of the wealthy and oppressors of the working man. I know that sounds nuts because most chamber members are small-business owners who, by definition, are the little guys.

The bottom line of that unholy alliance is that taxes have remained low — among the lowest anywhere — and so has every quality of life determinant available. We are among the lowest — that means worst — of all the states in education, health care, standard of living and practically every measurement available to express an understanding of how and if Nevadans live a life of quality.

Oh, yes, did I mention we are among the lowest in terms of tax burdens? Maybe there is a connection.

Maybe there is because that is what will explain why the chamber types turned out in force at UNLV. They were eager to learn and understand what it is that UNLV is doing to advance the quality of life in Southern Nevada and, most important, eager to understand the vital connection between institutions of higher learning, the percentage of advanced degrees and the quality of the community.

What they learned was so much more. Smatresk planned that day well because the deans and some of the brightest and most articulate students in this country made it clear to those listening that UNLV can hold its own when it comes to educating tomorrow’s leaders.

They also explained in no uncertain terms what devastating cuts — the ones Gov. Brian Sandoval has announced he wants to implement at UNLV and, frankly, across the educational landscape — would do to the prospects of educating our way to a better future. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the governor’s plan to “cut, cut, cut” would devastate UNLV.

And that means, as most businesspeople could comprehend, that their businesses — present and future — would suffer as well. That is probably why the chamber made a most welcome and unprecedented statement recently that, with certain reforms that have been contemplated for a while, taxes should be on the table because education needs to be valued and enhanced, not diminished.

So what is with the mountain and Muhammad comment? That’s simple.

This community has always perceived the business types at the Chamber of Commerce as immutable objects that have failed constantly to show up at the table when taxes need to be discussed and revenue needs to be raised. Their actions have always been an automatic “no” regardless of what they said.

On the other hand, UNLV and other educational institutions have stubbornly put themselves in a position that could be seen as “entitled,” certainly not a stance inviting to those who want to help but who aren’t sure if that help is necessary. They have presented themselves as a mountain, unable or unwilling to move.

With the economic realities of the day hitting Las Vegas and everything in it as hard as it has, Smatresk’s reaction has been to embrace necessary reform, and use it to make educational objectives at UNLV that much clearer and that much more attainable.

But he cannot do it with cuts alone. He needs this community to invest in his vision for a stellar university, which is open to all and available as a partner in our 21st century growth.

One of the deans remarked Wednesday that he had been at UNLV for 21 years, and it was the first time he had seen a group from the Chamber of Commerce. His comment was telling. Whether or not it was accurate — certainly such a group could have been there without the dean’s knowledge — the significance was not lost.

Quality higher education is good for our community precisely because it is good for the community’s business. The business community came to UNLV to learn what is in its best interest. In short, those in search of a profit saw fit to go to the mountain of higher education.

It remains to be seen whether those people have finally seen the light.

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