Las Vegas Sun

September 22, 2019

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Where I Stand:

Constitutional changes will spur higher-ed reforms across Nevada

As he does every August, Brian Greenspun is taking some time off and is turning over his Where I Stand column to others. Today's guest columnist is former Assemblyman Elliot Anderson.

In 2020, Nevada voters will have an opportunity to improve and reform higher education. I wanted to take the opportunity to give the Sun’s readers some background on this opportunity and ask for their support.

When I served in the Nevada Legislature, Sen. Joyce Woodhouse and I proposed Assembly Joint Resolution 5 to remove antiquated provisions from the Nevada Constitution regarding oversight of the state’s higher-education institutions.

AJR 5 goes to the ballot in November 2020. Voters must pass it in order to reform Nevada higher education.

Click to enlarge photo

Assemblyman Elliot Anderson serves District 15 in Las Vegas.

We started working on AJR 5 because of recent events too numerous to name here. In short, the Nevada System of Higher Education and the Nevada Board of Regents tried to control, alter and misrepresent information provided to policymakers, including the Legislature.

Both Sen. Woodhouse and I would like to commend the Board of Regents and the chancellor for taking interim steps to correct some of these issues. However, as policymakers, we must stay focused on building systems — not on individual personalities. We owe the residents of Nevada a culture of accountability at all levels of government. The higher education system belongs to all Nevadans — it is our investment in the future of our state.

AJR 5 removes outdated references to the Board of Regents in the Nevada Constitution that impede higher education reform. The Board of Regents, the governing body for higher education, regularly interprets these provisions in the Nevada Constitution to suggest that it is the “fourth branch of government.” Often, the Board of Regents has threatened litigation when Nevada legislators have tried to reform higher education.

Indeed, the Board of Regents has argued in court that it has virtual “immunity” from checks and balances. The board has used this constitutional status as a sword, defeating reform proposals using litigation or the threat of litigation. This constitutional provision is to blame; it must be removed before the Nevada Legislature can reform higher education and consider all options to improve academic performance.

Legislators from both parties and all parts of Nevada teamed up to overwhelmingly pass AJR 5. In 2017, AJR 5 passed the Assembly 38-4 and passed the state Senate 18-2. In 2019, AJR 5 passed the Assembly 36-5 and passed the state Senate unanimously, 20-0.

Now, AJR 5 goes to the ballot in 2020 for voter consideration. Legislators broadly endorsed this proposal because they are frustrated with the higher education system and our inability to directly reform higher education. Legislators also heard broad community support including from gaming, the broader business community, students and faculty members. These stakeholders strongly support AJR 5 to ensure that economic development does not flounder based upon disruption in higher education policy.

AJR 5 removes the Board of Regents from the Nevada Constitution but does not substantively change any higher education policy or procedure. AJR 5 simply puts the Board of Regents and NSHE on par with every other governing board and state agency — no other state agency or board has the constitutional standing that the Board of Regents has.

The Board of Regents would still be elected under other Nevada law. AJR 5 would not change this directly or indirectly. The framers of the Nevada Constitution did not create the Board of Regents as a constitutional body to give the Board of Regents unchecked autonomy from legislative oversight and control. AJR 5 restores the framers’ original intent.

Practically speaking then, you might wonder, what does AJR 5 do? AJR 5 changes the power dynamic between the branches of government. It allows the Legislature and courts to exercise unimpeded oversight over higher education in Nevada and allow more flexibility in considering reform proposals.

Constitutional governance serves as an outdated way to govern higher education, and Nevada is the only state that has its entire system governed by a single elected board, with constitutional status. Laundry lists of studies have recommended reorganization of the state’s higher education structure. But the Nevada Constitution has stopped legislators from doing so. This status quo will only change if voters support AJR 5.

The Board of Regents has argued that the Legislature is too political and therefore, the Board of Regents should remain in the Constitution.

But someone can get elected to either the Legislature or the Board of Regents. The Board of Regents is not insulated from politics if a politically minded candidate gets elected to the regents. Someone who is politically minded can actually do more damage on the 13-member Board of Regents, where the size of the governing board is far smaller than the 63-member Legislature. The Legislature has more members to balance out a single legislator. AJR 5 would also enshrine academic freedom in the Nevada Constitution; AJR 5 prevents the Legislature from interfering with instruction.

It is time Nevada changed the way higher education is organized; AJR 5 is an important step in doing so. AJR 5 would allow Nevadans to design a higher education system from the ground up without regard to what settlers from 1864 thought. As Thomas Jefferson said, “the Earth belongs to the living.” So to does our higher education system belong to the Nevadans living here today. AJR 5 would allow all of us to design the higher education system Nevada deserves and keep government accountable. AJR 5 would also allow Nevada legislators to directly improve academic performance. I ask for your support when AJR 5 goes to the ballot during the 2020 general election. Your support is critical to Nevada’s future.

Elliot Anderson served in the Nevada Assembly from 2011 to 2018, representing the 15th District.