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The Associated Press March 22, 2011, 8:26AM ET

Nevada students protest proposed budget cuts

Nevada students dressed in college T-shirts and school mascot costumes swarmed Nevada's capital city Monday, braving snow and freezing temperatures to demonstrate against deep cuts proposed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and urge state lawmakers to find funding for higher education.

The throngs of students -- including at least 1,500 who came by bus from Las Vegas, Elko and Reno -- made up one of the largest rallies in Carson City history. They chanted, "No more cuts," and "Si se puede," as they stood in front of the Legislature.

Passing cars honked at sign-toting protesters, and a marching band tuba player bounced along on the sidewalk to the groove of his bass line. College students also jammed the halls of the Legislature and public galleries, at times breaking into spontaneous shouts.

"In my 10 years as a legislator, I've never seen anything like this," Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, told students at a midday rally. "We've made cuts in the past wondering, 'Where are the people?' The apathy is gone."

Sandoval sent a tweet welcoming the students to Carson City. "I'm glad you're participating in the political process," he posted on Twitter.

But the message wasn't well-received by some demonstrators, who signed mass photocopied letters of protest and walked them over to Sandoval's office.

"This isn't a spending problem. This is a revenue problem," Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, told students at the rally. "He is the problem," she said of the governor.

Sandoval had planned to meet with the busloads of students at the Governor's Mansion when they arrived Monday morning, and had coffee and hot chocolate waiting for them. But the students' travels were delayed by bad weather.

The governor met with eight student leaders and one faculty representative later in the day at his office. The students told Sandoval they were disappointed in his unwavering, no tax stance, and urged compromise in the spirit of Sandoval's call for shared sacrifice.

Michael Flores, with Progress Now Nevada, said "it would be unfair not to have everyone at the table."

The governor thanked them for their participation, and noted he was a proud UNR graduate.

Asked if he thought mining was paying its fair share of taxes, Sandoval replied, "I think they are," and reiterated his position that raising taxes would harm businesses and efforts to bring jobs to Nevada.

Kyle George, president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas graduate and professional student body, said over the last three years students have supported higher fees and tuition costs. But higher education is suffering "death by 1,000 cuts," and that the total burden shouldn't be shouldered by students alone, he said.

Sandoval has proposed cutting state support for higher education by $162 million over the next two years. Officials with the Nevada System of Higher Education said that will mean elimination of programs, layoffs and hefty tuition increases for students.

The cuts in state support amount to 16 percent for the upcoming year, and nearly 30 percent the following year, when other lost funding such as federal stimulus money is factored.

Majors such as philosophy, art and economics are slated for cuts at UNLV. Several UNR theater students took the stand at a Monday morning budget hearing, defending that program from its proposed elimination.

Students who crowded a hearing room groaned when Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, told them the state's general fund contributions to the prison system would increase, while funds to higher education were falling.

Student body leaders called for bipartisan talks to raise taxes on businesses and mining. Some acknowledged the concerns of legislators who have slammed the higher education system for its low graduation rate.

"I'm not asking you to blindly write a check to NSHE. It's not a perfect system," said UNR student Brandon Bishop. "But we can work together to fix it."

One neuroscience major described waiting in a welfare line at age 14, promising her mother that someday, she would help her financially.

"Imagine my dismay when I hear my state government is doing everything it can to keep me from keeping my promise," America Acevedo said, adding that the budget was "careless, vile and degrading."

At the rally, Democratic lawmakers volleyed with the enthusiastic crowd, telling them they needed to write letters and emails throughout the rest of the legislative session to fight for a balanced budget.

"Show up here until the job is done," Horsford said.

Sen. Ruben Kihuen, a Las Vegas Democrat, riled up the crowd when he reminded them he was a product of Nevada's higher education system.

"Continue the fight. Continue the battle," Kihuen yelled in Spanish, to screams and cheers. "Nothing and no one is going to stop us until education in Nevada is the best in the country."


Associated Press writer Deb Weinstein contributed to this report.

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