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September 2, 2015

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OTHER VOICES:

Gag order obscures the real fight

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I think I know why Nevada voters, like so many others, are getting sick of politics.

This past Tuesday, Sun reporter Paul Takahashi wrote a story that centered on the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents, the chancellor of the system, the Legislature and the university presidents. It dealt with the regents’ plan to change — far too modestly — the formula that determines how our state colleges and universities are funded. It’s of special interest to Southern Nevada.

Takahashi’s first line said, “Gag order or procedure?” It’s an interesting phrase, I suspect, to a public that is very much interested in how we educate our young people, how we pay for it and the results. The public wants results and, as far as I can tell, all we are getting is a story that causes many of us to gag.

•••

Click to enlarge photo

Mike O'Callahan, former Nevada Governor

This is really no surprise to me. I remember almost 40 years ago driving across the state with then-Gov. Mike O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan’s driving habits did not include going one mile over the 55 mph speed limit, so we had a lot of time together for him to teach me the ins and outs of Nevada and her politics.

O’Callaghan was one of the very best Nevada governors — ever. I remember very clearly his lecture to me — somewhere between Battle Mountain and some other major metropolis outside of Las Vegas — on the necessity for Southern Nevada to pay a bit more than its fair share so that those in the rest of the state could have a fighting chance at survival.

After all, he would say, we are one state, and those of us with plenty have plenty more to give; he believed that we are better off as a state working together than working against our rural neighbors.

Fast forward 40 years and the question is how much should our fair share be and for how much longer do those of us in Southern Nevada, the people who have been paying the freight in this state, have to keep paying?

Even Gov. O’Callaghan would have a hard time justifying the way the South has been taken advantage of to the disadvantage of those who live here. Fair is fair, he might say, but this?

•••

That, I submit, is why there’s a row between the chancellor’s office and, perhaps, some overly compliant university and college presidents. Descriptions of the controversy are cloaked in language about academic freedom necessary for college professors and administrators to speak their piece regarding the fairness of the higher education funding formula versus the edicts about following proper procedure from the chancellor’s office and the Board of Regents.

That is just so much poppycock.

This is nothing more than the age-old fight between the North and the South — with an assist from the cow counties, depending upon where they see their economic interests being better served.

O’Callaghan warned me this day would come. He was succinct: If the North gets too greedy and the South continues to grow, the political power will swing toward Las Vegas. And toward that power, the money will follow.

•••

So, that is where we find ourselves today. The Great Recession swung an ax through already meager budgets for education and other necessities. Add in a consistent and always-troubling mix of apathy and cowardice by elected officials toward the thought of raising much-needed revenue, and the continued hubris of northern-biased political leaders toward hard-earned tax dollars paid by those from Clark County, and now many voters — and some of their elected representatives — are asking why.

As in: Why must we continue to shortchange our own children without an equal commitment from the North?

That question has manifested itself in the chancellor’s funding formula for higher education, which may or may not address the inequities that have existed. We don’t know. And the bigger problem is that the public and our legislators can’t find the answer because the people who know it aren’t allowed to open their mouths!

I don’t care how this matter is defined or with what words the issue is cloaked. It matters not whether this is academic freedom or the exaltation of proper procedure. The fact of the matter is that the people who have the most to gain or lose — the folks who are charged with operating our universities and colleges across this state — are not allowed to speak publicly.

For a state that boasted one of the first and most dynamic open meeting laws in the country, we are taking many steps backward toward a position in which only a few of the powers that be know what’s going on and they refuse to let the rest of us in on it.

O’Callaghan would have been banging a few heads about now. He would never let gag orders, procedural rules or other nonsense get in the way of a direct question and an even more direct answer.

For the record, if under this new formula the northern part of the state gave back even one dollar of the millions we ship up there for their benefit and not ours, then we are already ahead. But the question is not about a single dollar. It is about fundamental fairness of any formula and its ability to fund the necessary work of higher education.

I, for one, expect that the people charged with educating our youth down here should answer a few questions. I suspect that there are close to 2 million people living in Clark County (that’s 75 percent of the people in Nevada) who share that same expectation.

Our legislators should be able to question the chancellor, the Board of Regents and the university presidents and financial people to get the best and most complete answers to the questions about the fundamental fairness of any funding formula.

And it seems that anyone who has an answer should be allowed to give it without fear of reprisal. That is how democracies are supposed to work.

The crazy part about this whole situation is that phrases like “gag orders,” “proper procedures,” “decorum” and “speaking with one voice” are all phrases that, if I didn’t know better, would sound a whole lot like cover-up. And I am certain that is not the case here.

At least, I think I am certain. Well, I want to be certain. Don’t you?

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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