“Don’t become California!” is a common rallying cry in Nevada. It generally takes place a safe distance from reality, and involves claims that Gavin Newsom is a few notches to the left of Joseph Stalin. However, I too want to sound the alarm about the perils of emulating California.
Nevada is at a crossroads. It faces its second economic crisis in just over a decade, and its legislature is debating how much to cut from which parts of the state’s essential public services. Education, health, and human services are among the areas in the crosshairs of a governing body most notable for the impoverished state of its collective ambition and imagination. In particular in relation to higher ed, I’m reminded of California’s approach to its prized university system in the aftermath of the last recession.
Like Nevada, California possesses a constitution that’s been worked over by special interests and different generations of conflicted voters for the better part of a century, stuffed full of constitutional provisions that really belong in statute law, often constituting Paine’s “government from beyond the grave” and binding the hands of current legislators. As in Nevada, this made raising revenue a difficult proposition requiring careful arguments, strong leadership, and savvy political skills. And as in Nevada, Republicans were a minority party in California. However, at that point Democrats were a seat or two short of supermajorities in the state senate and assembly. This meant that if Republicans controlled a mere 35% of the seats in the legislature, they could block any tax increases, necessary to offset growing budget deficits. And block these they did. Moreover, in Jerry Brown, California was led by a Democratic governor who was convinced of the virtues of austerity. When he came to office in 2010 on the heels of the recession and a worsening economic crisis, Brown cut, cut, and cut again.
Steve Sisolak, and Nevada’s Democrats, who have a supermajority in one side of the legislature and are one seat away in the other, appear to be adopting a similar approach, pinning their hopes on bailouts from the federal government or from tourists who they imagine will come flocking back to Nevada, something about as likely at this stage as birds flying north en masse in winter. California’s Brown had at least a semblance of a plan in 2010. His idea was to avoid offering any leadership of his own and to show California’s tax-averse public just how much pain they were inflicting on the state by their chronic refusal to countenance higher taxes, and then put a modest tax increase on the ballot, directly to voters, a couple of years later. He calculated that the public would blink before inflicting another round of cuts on schools, universities, libraries, and every other public institution essential to the fabric of the state’s civil society. The voters blinked.
But the damage had been done. All of California’s institutions took years to come back from the vicious cuts, unnecessary in a place with the Golden State’s wealth. Some are still recovering. Through it all the University of California, the institution whose campuses dominate rankings of public higher education institutions in the United States, was a prime target for Brown, a longtime skeptic of the UC. The ballot initiative and temporary tax increase went a pitifully small way toward restoring the funding Brown and the legislature had cut.
However, the University of California was a juggernaut unwilling to be halted by the governor and legislature, and turned to tuition and fees to make up the shortfall. When I finished my undergraduate degree at UC in 2008, tuition and fees were under $7,000 a year (comparable to UNLV and UNR today). By the time I left grad school in 2014, undergraduate tuition and fees had risen to nearly $15,000. Today, tuition and fees at the UC, California’s grand public university system, run north of $17,000 per year.
To be sure, a mix of scholarship and other aid ensures that many Californians do not pay this full bill. But the vicious cuts inflicted on the system after the recession made the UC a public university in name only. In 1990, 50% of the UC’s budget came from the state of California. Today Californians pay a mere 14% of the costs. The burden for its funding shifted from comprising a collective endeavor by all Californians who recognized that investing in truly remarkable research and instruction generated returns for society as a whole and was part of what made their state a powerful economic and social force. The burden now rests on the shoulders of individual students or their families. Students in my classroom at UC struggled to pay tuition, and students in local high school writing programs ceased to see UC as a possibility because of skyrocketing tuition. Jerry Brown mocked students protesting tuition increases as being akin to millionaire bankers seeking golden parachutes. Moreover, this state of affairs broke the civic bond between Californians and the most important of their public institutions meant to be spaces of collective investment, collective endeavor, and of collective experience.
The state’s divestment from higher ed also meant that when the state had good, reasonable requests to make of the UC, or sought to place limits on how quickly UC sought to increase tuition, it had so little skin remaining in the game that it lost a great deal of the leverage it had over its prized public institution. At some points, UC has turned down state funding when it came with strings it didn’t like.
California’s approach to the recession and economic crisis in general and higher ed in particular was also the death blow to the state’s Republican Party, today a marginal presence of little consequence in the state’s legislative chambers. Populated by oath-swearing, pledge-taking anti-tax fundamentalists, whose rigidity required them to forswear the use of their grey cells whether it was hell or high water coming for their constituents, the state’s Republican legislators resolutely opposed even the most modest of requests for new revenue in the midst of the state’s economic and social crisis. The fact that from the minority (as long as they had one vote more than ⅓ of the legislature) they could put California on autopilot toward punishing austerity allowed Democrats to accurately portray them as idle-minded obstructionists, disinterested in the serious project of governance. The party is so impotent and unpopular today that the last two senate elections and most recent gubernatorial contests have seen only Democrats on the November ballot.
Nevada should not follow the path California took after the last recession. California’s political leadership saw the budget as an end to proving the value of fiscal discipline rather than a means to a more just society. California’s political leadership refused to grapple with the structural issues which plunged the state into repeated crises of revenue and forced it to turn repeatedly to the cruelty of budget cuts. And California’s political leadership inflicted lasting harm on public institutions and services and on the state’s residents who depend on them.
A couple of days ago, it appeared that Nevada’s Democratic governor and legislators couldn’t have assembled a single political spine between them. There was then talk about reducing some of the mining industry’s deductions, something that in its latest iteration might have raised as much as $102 million. But that was measured against the hundreds of millions being cut from education, health, and human services, and the governor refused to offer any meaningful leadership or offer public calls for anything other than cuts. And the proposal was rejected by Republican legislators.
The state’s Democratic leadership has shown precious little imagination and courage in addressing this crisis. But there is some irony, given the political right wing’s constant invocation of California as the bogeyman that should be the stuff of nightmares for all Nevadans, that the state’s Republican legislators have taken a lead in ensuring that Nevada will balance the budget on the backs of those least able to bear the burden by following the California model from the last recession.