Las Vegas Sun

October 1, 2022

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UNLV’s overture to business execs includes a campus tour

Neal Smatresk

Christopher DeVargas

UNLV President Neal Smatresk is lobbying the business community to support the university, which is facing deep budget cuts.

UNLV President Neal Smatresk has become increasingly strategic in trying to protect the university from budget cuts, drawing upon advice that he must sell the financially troubled university to business and political players as well as the broader population.

The latest incarnation of that approach was evident Wednesday as 19 business leaders from Southern Nevada toured the UNLV campus, hearing not just from university administrators but from top-notch students detailing their academic success and explaining why they chose to attend the university rather than Ivy League colleges or top schools in California and elsewhere.

Smatresk’s message to the group was one of need and humility: “If you like what you see, we need your support, and we need your help.”

The goal is to build a base of support for an institution that could lose as many as 315 positions in the latest round of cuts, which would bring their total to more than 800 within the past two years. Significant grant dollars would be reduced or eliminated. First-rate students would not get the classes they need. All would have an effect on the region’s deeply troubled economy.

Leaders of the Nevada System of Higher Education hope such show-and-tells will peel away key Republican legislative votes from the anti-tax column, as well as hold any wavering Democrats, and leverage pressure on Gov. Brian Sandoval to ease his no-new-taxes pledge by selling the links between a healthy economy and the state’s colleges and universities.

Wednesday’s gathering and tour of campus programs included the new Science and Energy Building, Greenspun Hall, which houses the university’s journalism school, the college of urban affairs and Brookings Mountain West, the western U.S. arm of the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Las Vegas Sun Publisher and Editor Brian Greenspun was among those who spoke at the gathering.

Smatresk recited a series of numbers that have become a mainstay of his recent stump speeches to business, community and political groups. The state’s fiscal crisis has forced UNLV to eliminate more than 540 positions and receive about $50 million less in operating funding during the past four years. Sandoval’s proposed budget would cut an additional $47.5 million.

“If approved, the proposed $47.5 million cut would limit the number of students we serve, decimate faculty ranks, cripple our liability to retain and recruit academic talent and reduce income from student fees and faculty generated grants and contracts,” reads a glossy handout given to guests.

The business leaders, many of whom are key players in the politically influential Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, included investment adviser Hugh Anderson and businessman Steve Hill, the current and past chairmen of the group’s Government Affairs Committee. Others included Wells Fargo Regional President Kirk Clausen, Bank of America Nevada President George Smith, gaming industry lawyer Michael Bonner and developer Mark Fine, as well as longtime casino industry executive Glenn Christenson, who represented the Nevada Development Authority.

The chamber last week sent a letter with Anderson’s signature to members saying that the business group could support more revenue for the state if paired with long-term government reforms, a reflection of the evolving position of the chamber on tax questions. “Although it is not clear what the legislative budget committees will recommend, our review has led us to believe additional tax revenue may be necessary,” Anderson wrote.

“However, let me be clear: The chamber’s willingness to support additional tax revenue is absolutely dependent on the passage this year of significant and meaningful reforms that will fix systemic problems that are plaguing our state.”

The group’s proposed reforms include “fixing” the Public Employees’ Retirement System to reduce a $10 billion unfunded liability and lowering the cost of providing this benefit in the future; discontinuing the State Retiree Health Insurance Subsidy through the Public Employees’ Benefits Plan for new employees; reforming the collective bargaining process and providing local governments with the flexibility they need to weather the economy and to hold them accountable; transforming K-12 education to encourage and reward results, and retooling higher education.

The group consistently opposed state tax increases under Kara Kelley, who retired a year ago as the chamber’s president and CEO. She was replaced by Matt Crosson, the head of a 5,000-member business association that pushed a tighter link between publicly funded education and the use of tax dollars to boost that relationship. Crosson died Christmas Eve after complications from a stroke.

Kristin McMillan, a Century Link regional executive, assumes the group’s top job on May 2.

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