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Think We Have it Bad? Look East

by Alan Markow, published

For Californians who feel they are part of an Alice-in-Wonderland budget process, check out what's going on in the neighboring state of Nevada. Governor Jim Gibbons recently announced some draconian solutions to the state's $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

The one most shocking is a 40+ percent cut to the university system budget. Imagine the reaction here in California to a cut of nearly half the spending for higher education.

Board of Regents head Jim Rogers likened the governor's approach to asking people to live in a house that had been half burned out in a fire, saying that a house without key parts such as the kitchen or bedrooms was really no house at all.

The University of Nevada, Reno campus has taken an unusually heavy hit - a recommended 47 percent budget cut - that has caused Berkeleyesque protests from UNR students and NIMBY complaints from the community's political representatives.

According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, said students would have to shoulder a 225 percent tuition increase to cover the funding shortfall from the governor's budget cuts.

The newspaper quoted Bobzien as asking students: "... do you think a budget that includes a 47 percent budget cut to the University of Nevada, Reno is a vision? "

"No!" the crowd roared.

It seems clear that the governor has laid out a radical budget designed to stimulate some heated discussion. In fact, the governor started that dialogue himself during his recent State of the State address to the legislature when he guaranteed that a safety net would remain in place protecting Nevada's poorest and urged the state to find alternatives to the gambling industry in order to protect its future. He specifically suggested that the state's entrepreneurs focus on environmental businesses such as green energy development.

What's particularly interesting about the cutbacks in higher education is that they directly impact the type of research that drives the innovation required to create green businesses. Silicon Valley would not be the source of so many technological advances without the presence of UC campuses in Berkeley, Davis and Santa Cruz (and, of course, Stanford, which is not subject to the state budgeting process). So how does Gov. Gibbons think that green industries will supplant gambling as the number one business in Nevada without strong research universities? Maybe he's just throwing the dice.

There will be plenty of negotiating before a final budget is drawn up, and the governor surely expects challenges to his priorities. Then again, Nevada has never been as friendly toward education as has California, and its state universities have not brought the kinds of advances to the world that have come out of the UC's. So it's hard to gage how serious the proposed cuts really are.

One thing is certain, the Nevada level of cuts to higher education would bring a storm of protests throughout California. Meanwhile, we Californians can get some relief from our own budget angst by watching our much smaller neighbors struggle with its own unique set of problems. It makes us look so almost sane by comparison.

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