Of Big Raises and Food Pantries

Your vote may affect whether people eat. All registered voters have an Assembly race, and many have a state Senate election. Some will vote on members of the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents. Legislators decide the budget amount. Both legislators and regents, depending on the issue, have a say in its distribution.

As voters, you expect elected officials to be accountable to you for what they do. After all, they are spending your money. The Board of Regents recently voted to spend some, awarding raises to three UNLV coaches and four top NSHE administrators. Some of the people receiving raises were already among the highest paid in the university system. The vote was overwhelming.

Since the 2007 Legislature—that’s before the economic collapse, but during the comparable disaster known as the governorship of Jim Gibbons—the budget for higher education in Nevada has fallen by more than one-third, which may explain why state agencies have been thrilled that the current governor wants them to submit “flat” budgets with no further cuts. At first, all state employees except tenured faculty had to accept furloughs and pay cuts, then the regents voted to cut tenured faculty, too. That was fine: We should all do our part.

But this meant the first to be cut were the lowest paid. And when everybody had to be cut, the same percentage applied to everyone, from the lowest-paid administrative assistant to the highest-paid doctor at the medical school.

So, while the regents voted for pay raises for coaches and administrators, others are in a less fortunate position. That’s why there’s a UNLV Food Pantry, which provides, as the name suggests, food—to UNLV students and employees who need it because they can’t afford it.

“It started as a temporary food drive two years ago during the holidays, and the need was so great that we determined that we needed to start doing something on a more permanent basis,” says Michael Hammer, who works in UNLV’s Faculty Senate office and on the food bank. “It’s exclusively dedicated to serving people associated with UNLV, whether it’s employees or students. The support has been overwhelming from the campus, in monetary or food donations. So far we’ve fed over a thousand people.”

The pantry, which is across from UNLV in the Promenade building, plans more outreach and fundraisers—see its Facebook page for updates. It’s a classic case of the haves, even if what they have isn’t much, helping the have-nots. And it’s voluntary—it isn’t a government agency.

But consider that it isn’t just for students who might be living hand-to-mouth, paying for college and possibly supporting themselves and a family. It’s also for employees, like the administrative assistants whose base take-home pay is less than $30,000 a year.

One of the biggest problems we face as a country is our misunderstanding of government. Whether or not it has to be big, it has to be as efficient and accountable as possible. When we simply attack government as the enemy, instead of celebrating the good and expunging the bad, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy of incompetence (see the response to Hurricane Katrina).

So, when the higher-education system holds a diversity summit just in time for regents’ elections, or a college spends an estimated $100,000 on consultants to figure out why too few students graduate, it’s bad enough. But when they approve pay raises for the well-paid while their employees need free food to get by, it’s time to ask them and your legislators why they don’t believe in accountability. If those employees are Mitt Romney’s 47 percent, the other 53 percent aren’t doing their jobs.