Las Vegas Sun

August 24, 2019

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Speed of project worries critics

Martin Kuz

Steve Sisolak is suffering from windburn. The cause isn't the fierce gusts that buffet the Las Vegas Valley this time of year. Instead, he's feeling the effects of a proposal to build a state college in Henderson whipping through the university Board of Regents.

"Taking a look at higher-education needs in Southern Nevada is good," said Sisolak, a board member. "But I'm very, very troubled at how quickly this idea is moving. I can't even believe how quickly it's moving."

The plan for Nevada's first-ever four-year state college has breezed along since its supporters started hawking the concept last fall. A special legislative committee formed in June to study the need for a state college gave a thumbs-up to the proposal Nov. 16, a mere two months after its first meeting.

The Board of Regents, close on the heels of that recommendation, green-lighted the plan Dec. 1. The approval came despite an absence of specifics about the project, including a designated building site, estimated start-up costs and a confirmed list of private donors -- considered the proposal's linchpin.

Less than three weeks later, the board tapped Richard Moore to become the college's founding president. In hiring Moore, head of the Community College of Southern Nevada since 1994, regents bypassed a national search for candidates with experience running a four-year institution.

The fate of the phantom college ultimately lies with state lawmakers and Gov. Kenny Guinn, who will decide whether to make the school a reality during the 2001 Legislature.

Nonetheless, the unanswered questions about the plan -- coupled with the fact that the wheels of bureaucracy normally grind so slowly as to seem square -- prompt Sisolak and other skeptics to wonder: Just how did this idea get so far, so fast?

"I don't know if there have been back-room deals or meetings in the middle of the night," Sisolak said. "But sometimes perception is as bad as reality. And the perception is, something is going on."

Proponents claim that nothing more nefarious than a "demonstrated need" for a four-year college and a desire to open its doors by fall 2003 explain the plan's rapid advance. Yet even they give as much, if not more, credit to the intense lobbying efforts -- call it the persuasive bluster -- put forth by Henderson's political leaders at the city and state level.

The troika leading the pro-college forces consists of Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson, Nevada Assembly Majority Leader Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, and state Sen. Jon Porter, R-Henderson.

Both Gibson and Perkins make the case that to open the college by 2003 requires lawmakers to take up the the proposal when the Legislature next convenes in 2001. Porter could not be reached for comment for this story.

"I know the appearance is that things are moving very fast, but it's for a reason," Perkins said. "Are we going to wait another five to 10 years to do this, or are we going to do this now? If we wait, we'll have to wait till the 2003 Legislature to get it moving."

A quick start

Perkins admitted that people in and out of government "pooh-poohed" him last fall when he began selling the idea of a state college. Then, during this year's legislative session, he saw his pitch for an advisory committee to explore the issue obscured by debate over the state-funding gap between Nevada's northern and southern universities and community colleges.

Refusing to ease off, Perkins finally secured $500,000 late in the session to create the panel. He also managed to get himself appointed its chairman. Joining him as members: Gibson and Porter. Regents Mark Alden and Howard Rosenberg, early foes of the college proposal who since have become supporters, rounded out the committee.

Perkins proved equally tenacious in fending off demands that the panel explore Southern Nevada's broader higher-education needs, freeing its members to focus solely on the Henderson college plan. The committee must present its findings to the Legislature by Sept. 1, 2000.

Regent Tom Kirkpatrick, an outspoken critic of the proposal, asserted that the Henderson-centric makeup and narrow mission of the panel had everything to do with its eventual recommendation to the board.

"My god, you'd only have to give me $50,000 and I'd give you what you want," he said. "It was a foregone conclusion that they'd say it was a good idea."

Perkins defended the scope and brisk pace of the committee's work, pointing out that lawmakers and regents alike had a long look at the college plan during the session. He added that plenty of built-in checks and balances -- most notably, his fellow legislators and Guinn -- remain in place on the proposal.

At the same time, Perkins touts the swift action of the advisory committee and the regents as a rare and hearty example of elected officials doing more than reaching an impasse.

"Ask people what their top four criticisms are of government and they'll say it's too slow, it's too inefficient, there's improper use of tax dollars and (lawmakers) don't listen to constituents. This plan is something that's an answer to all of those," he said.

Make things happen

Still, without a pledge from Gibson and Henderson city officials to donate 200 to 300 acres of land for a campus, the plan would have gone nowhere fast.

For all the legislative clout of Perkins and Porter, some political observers regard Gibson as the prime mover of the college proposal. The reason: It was the mayor who jump-started matters by offering a choice of four separate plots of city land each valued $10 million to $15 million to the state for the low, low price of absolutely nothing.

Gibson committed to the donation after talking with what he represented as a mix of Southern Nevada business and civic leaders who echoed his enthusiasm. With Henderson newly minted as Nevada's second-largest city, building a four-year college would further nourish the pride of the Las Vegas suburb that considers itself "second to no one," as Gibson put it.

"As this city matures, I think it needs a higher-education component, and that component will bring even greater maturity to our community," he said. "If there are expansions of any kind in the university system, there are ample justifications that the second-biggest city in the state should be considered for that."

Included in that rationale may be an unspoken desire to chisel away the lunch-pail image forged in decades past when Henderson was known as Hooterville.

"Henderson was a company town looked down on by Las Vegas for many years," Kirkpatrick said. "Mayor Gibson wants to make things happen to help Henderson be respected."

The push to make things happen, however, can smell like pork-barrel politics to critics. The charge has hounded Gibson, Perkins and Porter in no small part because of the moniker -- Henderson State College -- commonly affixed to their proposal.

Gibson and Perkins, arguing that the project will bear statewide benefits, maintain that their city doesn't have deeper educational needs than, say, Mesquite or Ely. What Henderson does have, they said, is available land for a college -- regardless of its name.

"I've never characterized it as Henderson State College," Gibson said. "The name should be Nevada State College. It's bringing educational opportunities to the entire state. This isn't about what Henderson needs, it's about what the state needs."

Under wraps

For now, the most appropriate name for the proposed school may be the Where in Henderson State College?

Gibson and Perkins so far have declined to provide details on the four sites under consideration for the campus. They insist that revealing the locations would touch off too much political wrangling, and intend to wait to choose a site until after Moore settles into his new job Jan. 15.

The lack of specifics irks Sisolak, who has tired of the in-due-time assurances on questions concerning the site location and the potential private contributors to the project. Perkins has said that donors will pump as much as $100 million into the new school, yet refuses to name names when pressed.

"Where's the land? Where's the money? That's what it all comes down to," Sisolak said. "If you show me the money, if you give me the information to make an intelligent decision, I could buy in. But I don't see it."

Guinn's crusade to tighten overall state spending makes money raised from private sources pivotal to the proposed college's chances of survival. Both Guinn and state Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, hedge on whether Nevada could prop up an eighth higher-education institution.

The state fiscal restraint portends that the proposed public institution may require as much as $100 million in private donations to help cover architectural design, building construction and other capital costs, according to Alden.

The state allocated 19 percent of its budget, or $894 million, for higher education in the 1999-2001 biennium. UNLV received $292 million, about $8 million less than the University of Nevada, Reno. Unofficial estimates on the cost of building and staffing a new college range from $100 million to $300 million.

The uncertainty of how much state money a four-year college would garner puts the onus on Gibson, Perkins and Porter to deliver on their promise of private funding.

Sisolak's stomach churns at the thought. He noted that state college advocates peddle high hopes of soliciting $50 million to $100 million for a school still on paper. By comparison, the UNLV Foundation -- an established fund-raising apparatus -- pulled in its highest total ever last fiscal year: $28 million.

"This is like dream shopping," Sisolak said. "How is an institution that hasn't even been built going to raise the kind of money they're talking about?"

Perkins countered that universities and colleges routinely keep donor information under wraps. Outing possible benefactors would bring them unwanted attention from other organizations searching for financial aid, he added.

Whether that explanation qualifies as expedience or deference, Perkins said his vow before the Legislature and the Board of Regents to drum up private funding speaks for itself.

"I feel definite enough about that to say it publicly, which certainly puts my reputation at risk," he said. "But not naming donors is not an unusual situation when you're talking about public-private partnerships."

Gibson voiced similar conviction: "We will figure out a way to do what we have said we would do. I have absolutely no doubt about that."

Gibson and Perkins did confirm that the Greenspun family, whose name already adorns the College of Urban Affairs at UNLV, ranks among the prospective contributors to a state college. The Greenspuns own American Nevada Corp., one of the Las Vegas Valley's largest development companies and the architect of much of Henderson's growth in the 1990s. The family also owns the Las Vegas Sun.

Brian Greenspun, head of American Nevada Corp., said that while he has yet to meet with Gibson, Perkins or Porter about the state college project, he looks forward to their overtures.

"We are longtime and significant supporters of UNLV and we expect to continue that support for many years," Greenspun said.

"At the same time, we are encouraged by the steps that have been taken to bring the Henderson state college to fruition. And we have always felt a strong commitment both to Southern Nevada generally and the city of Henderson specifically."

Two schools of thought

But knowing the identity of one potential donor still leaves many more unknowns about the Henderson proposal for the Board of Regents. Add to those concerns the deafening public silence on the need for a state college, and the regents' decision to fast-forward the plan sets eyebrows to rising.

Two schools of thought prevail on why the board endorsed the concept. One holds that beneath the regents' stream of support flows an undercurrent of fear that to deny Perkins his self-described "dream" could come back at them in the form of education funding cuts.

The second suggests that, simply put, the relentless confidence of Perkins and his cohorts made converts out of the nonbelievers. Kirkpatrick said that some regents worried privately that spiking the state college proposal would earn them the wrath of Perkins. Political experts consider the Majority Leader a virtual shoo-in to succeed Joe Dini as Assembly Speaker should the Yerington Democrat step down in 2001.

Gaining the post would give Perkins even greater influence over the amount of money funneled to state spending programs, including education. Regents fretted if they spurned Perkins on the college initiative, he might retaliate by seeking to slash education funding, according to Kirkpatrick.

"This is the Majority Leader in the Assembly," Sisolak said. "This is someone who wields a lot of power, and that has an impact on some people's thinking."

Not so, Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg, a vocal opponent of the college plan when he joined the advisory panel who today counts himself a backer, portrayed Perkins as more passionate advocate than political heavy. He also said a feasibility report prepared by university system administrators, not the cheerleading on behalf of Henderson, provided the most compelling argument for a state college.

Even so, on one weighty point -- and despite his prediction that a new school will siphon off state dollars from existing institutions -- Rosenberg takes the word of Gibson, Perkins and Porter.

"I'm putting my faith in people I trust that if they say the (private) money's there, then the money's there," Rosenberg said.

"It is without question a gamble. But the reality is, if we don't act now, we'll miss the chance to get this to the 2001 Legislature. Then we're setting ourselves back four, probably six years."

Regent Chairwoman Jill Derby feels likewise. "We need to grow no matter what. With the growth we've had in Southern Nevada, we need to keep up, and that's what the goal is" of Gibson, Perkins and Porter, she said.

In that regard, Rosenberg offered a decidedly pragmatic view of the pork-barrel rap against the Henderson threesome.

"If someone's making political capital off this, so what? That's reality," Rosenberg said. "I don't have a problem with that as long as the kids get what's right."

Perhaps the most improbable and important conversion from skeptic to booster occurred when UNLV President Carol Harter embraced the college proposal this fall. A year ago, arguing that a new institution would further strain the state's higher education resources, she plugged the idea of a UNLV satellite campus in Henderson.

Harter said her perspective changed the longer she listened to the plan's chief spokesmen.

"I just feel more comfortable with the assurances from Assemblyman Perkins, Sen. Porter and Mayor Gibson that their interest in a state college is in no way going to reduce the amount of money going to UNLV," she said. "I think we can all coexist."

Yet Harter also acknowledged that as the state college proposal gathered steam in recent months, she realized the best way to promote UNLV's interests would be to climb aboard the bandwagon. As one regent said, "She got religion."

The newfound faith didn't hurt: A day after the regents approved the state college plan, they gave the nod to UNLV's request for satellite campuses in Summerlin and northwest Las Vegas.

The right thing to do?

Gibson and Perkins like to note that few metro areas -- perhaps none -- the size of the Las Vegas Valley make do without a four-year state college. Their wishes aside, it may stay that way for awhile.

Two of Nevada's most potent elected officials, Guinn and Raggio, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, urge caution when discussing the plan. Pete Ernaut, Guinn's out-going chief of staff, said the governor favors studying the need for a state college and applauds the Henderson triumvirate for mustering support for their proposal.

"But he's a little uncomfortable with the speed with which it's taken off," Ernaut said. "Before everyone gets too excited, we need to first take a look at what all of this means. At this point, it's nothing more than a public-relations effort."

Raggio seconded that sober outlook.

"We have limited revenues and we have a lot of priorities -- corrections, mental health, welfare, along with education. I know a new college is desirable, but I don't know if it's necessary at this point," he said.

Gibson and Perkins possess no such ambivalence. They want a state college built, they want it located in Henderson and they want it to happen sooner rather than later because they think it's the right thing to do.

And they say it doesn't matter who gets credit.

"Creating a state college is not going to make me Speaker of the Assembly," Perkins said. "If it raises my (political) star, the only reason is because it continues to make me electable. And if it continues to make me electable, that means I'm listening to my constituents."