On the heels of the Nevada caucuses, Nevadans across the state are examining the issues that matter most to them. For Harry Reid, one of those issues is education. Reid sat down with the Nevada Sagebrush to discuss the importance of making college more accessible, as well as why Nevada’s third-in-the-nation caucus position is good for the state.
Nevada Sagebrush: Can you tell us about the new student debt bill?
Sen. Harry Reid: “We have a program that we call In the Red. We think that the Republicans have made a big mistake not allowing us to adjust the loan rate, not doing things to help reduce the burden of parents and children. The highest debt we have in America is not credit cards, it’s student loans — $1.3 trillion. And [loans] have just decimated the ability of young people to go to school. And the further sad part is once [students] graduate, the jobs are not as good as they should be. So we are going to do everything we can to focus attention on this, what we call In the Red.
We want young people to have an opportunity in the future to get out of the red, and those who have borrowed money in the past some relief needs to be given. Now, we’ve done some things, in spite of the objections we’ve gotten from the Republicans.
… In 1974, an order was issued by the president that anyone making less than $23,00 a year would not be paid overtime. They would be managers, and they could work 80 hours a week, they would get paid their $23,000. President Obama … he’s promulgated a rule, and now in July of this year, he’s going to consider inflation having taken place. And now, anyone making less than $53,000 a year will not be able to get overtime.
Now who will that affect most of all? It’ll affect 40,000 people in Nevada, and sadly, 53 percent of the people now who are managers making less than $23,000 a year are college graduates. Think about that: these are people who’ve struggled to get out of college and they get a job as a manager at McDonald’s or one of these casinos … the jobs are no good. They work long, long, hours, and that’s going to change come this summer. I think that’s tremendous. But the reason I mention that [is because] it shows how we have to focus on education so that it means something to get a degree. Right now those people that were making $23,000 a year, they will get a huge raise. If not, they’ll be paid for overtime.”
NS: In your opinion, what is the best way to reduce the cost of or stem the rising cost of higher education?
HR: “First of all, the federal government and the state government have to stop paying for the university education on the backs of students. The last 25 years, we have done so little to help education that the state universities are stuck with no other alternative than just to raise tuition, fees … everything. So we have to make sure that we put pressure on state and federal government to help education; we have neglected it.
And … [student loans] burden people. So we have to have a much lower interest rate and we have to have a period of time that when people are working — and we’ve done this partially and that’s been good, you work for a certain amount of time — you pay a certain percentage of your income into getting rid of the debt. If you arrive at a 20-year, 25-year period of time and you haven’t paid off, they should forgive the debt. Because people work long periods of time trying to pay off this debt and it never goes away because interest keeps building.”
NS: In addition to the cost of tuition, is there any concern on Capitol Hill over the exorbitant cost of college textbooks?
HR: “It’s all part of the gamut that universities do to make money … the publishers of course make some money, but the universities mark the cost up so that they get money also. Books, while important, are not as important as they used to be because there’s so much done online.”
NS: Of the plans to reduce the burden of student loan debt being floated in the presidential race right now, which plan do you see as most feasible? In other words, which plan do you think is most likely to pass through a Congress similar to the one we have now?
HR: “Interestingly enough, Bernie Sanders has been very honest. He said ‘How are you gonna pay for all this free stuff? Raise taxes.’ So that’s a choice that has to be made — are we going to raise taxes to pay for all this stuff?
… No matter what we do, we’re going to have to change the ability of young men and women to go to college. A Pell Grant, initially … was given so that it would take care of all your costs for that year; now, it’s a drop in the bucket. We need more grants rather than just loans. We need more grants. And it’s great that … there are scholarships for people, that’s nice. But the private sector should not have to pay for what is the responsibility of the government.”
NS: As a matter of public policy, where does the cost of higher education rank among other issues?
HR: “Well as I told you, when the largest single debt we have in America is student loans, that says it all. I don’t know why anything would be more important than that. And what people also should understand is that we talk about national security, but being a secure nation is more than bombs and bullets and scanners to find out if you have anything on you; having an educated public is also good for our security.”
NS: Could you expand on how having an educated population is good for our security?
HR: “It’s been proven over generations of time that countries are stronger that are the best educated, and we are no longer the No. 1 educated country in the world. We’re losing our place.
We have great universities but they’re terribly expensive for most people. And what I suggest is that we lessen the burden so that we can have a more educated population. When I went to school, I got a few scholarships … but I could work in the summers and put myself through school. You young people can’t do that, it’s too expensive. You need help. If someone’s willing to work really hard it shouldn’t take you eight years to get a bachelor’s degree, or 10 years. That’s what’s happening now, and it’s bad for our country.”
NS: Let’s move on to discussing the upcoming caucuses. You worked very hard to help Nevada secure its place as third in the nation and first in the West. What does that spot mean to you, and what does it mean to Nevada?
HR: “That’s in inverse order. It’s important to Nevada because it focuses a lot of attention that Nevada wouldn’t normally get. Number two, it brings a lot of money into the state every time we have these caucuses. People come from all over the world to see what’s going on here. it generates millions and millions of dollars.
The reason it’s important to the country is because we should not be dependent on two states that are not diverse at all — New Hampshire and Iowa — to determine who’s going to run for president. Nevada is noteworthy because the population centers of America are moving west of the Mississippi. We have huge cities out here that didn’t exist a few decades ago. I mean think about Las Vegas: more than 2 million people live in that metropolitan area alone. And there are issues in the West that don’t exist east of the Mississippi. All the public lands issues, all the drought problems we’re having out here, you could go through a long list of things … it exposes people running for president to what our issues are in Nevada and in the West.
NS: What are your hopes for this year’s caucus?
HR: “I hope they turn out so no one’s complaining about their not being fair. That’s the reason I haven’t endorsed anybody pre-caucus. I hope that the weather is good and we get big turnout. It’s good for Nevada and good for doing these caucuses in the years to come.”
NS: Even though Democrats saw record caucus turnout in 2008, it was still less only around 30 percent of the voting electorate. In your opinion, what is keeping Nevadans from participating in the caucus at higher rates?
HR: “Well we could always do better, not just for caucuses but for elections generally. But the caucuses are a little different. People are afraid of them, they have to actually appear there and be for somebody. Other people don’t want to do that. They’d rather do it in the quietude of a voting booth. But the caucus is a part of America, and it’s really grassroots politics at its best. I hope we do as well if not better this time as we did eight years ago.”
NS: If turnout is low this year, what chance is there that Nevada loses its third-in-the-nation spot?
HR: “That won’t be a reason for Nevada losing its place. The only reason we would lose it is … reactionary Republicans who, in the last state legislature tried to get rid of it. They don’t like this attention, this focus on Nevada. They would rather do it in a smoke-filled room late at night, I guess.”
NS: As you mentioned, people sometimes get nervous about the caucus or think it’s too much work. What would you say is the importance of putting in that effort?
HR: “Well it doesn’t take much time. All the precinct meetings are close to where you live. And if you haven’t registered ever in your life, or if your registration is failed because you didn’t vote last time, you can go there five minutes before the [Democratic] caucus starts and register on the same day. And that’s really good.”