Lawmakers briefed on blizzard of university budget decisions

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A joint Senate-Assembly committee was faced Wednesday with a blizzard of decisions they must make to settle the university system’s budget for the next two years.

The only key decision reached in the 2½ hour briefing from staff was that they will base their decisions on the funding formula developed by a study committee during the past 18 months. That formula shifts funding among the seven system institutions from student enrollment to credit hours completed.

At the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said he thinks lawmakers are much closer to ironing out the issues than they were at the start of the session.

“We’re getting to something everyone thinks is fair,” he said.

Development of a new formula was demanded in the 2011 Legislature primarily by Southern Nevada lawmakers who see the existing system as cheating UNLV, College of Southern Nevada and Henderson State College. All of the data and information on possible scenarios was not available to the public or the press during Wednesday’s hearing.

Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, said in her eyes, there has been “an unfair distribution of funds for many years.”

“I believe it hasn’t been fair in the past,” said Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, D-Las Vegas. “That new formula was to get us to the equity that was absent.”

But the new plan creates issues of its own — including a disproportionate impact on the two smallest, primarily rural institutions — Western Nevada College and Great Basin College.

The options there include adding funding to both institutions before the formula is applied and a plan to “hold harmless” WNC and GBC for either two or the next four years by declaring that no institution should lose more than 10 percent next year or 15 percent the year after. The issue is where that money — upward of $6 million — would come from.

Regent Ron Knecht pointed out that all system institutions have suffered from budget cuts since 2009. He said University of Nevada, Reno was hit hardest at 32 percent with UNLV and WNC close behind at 21 percent down.

Lawmakers also need to decide how to count failing grades in the calculation of credits completed. One scenario is to discount all “F” grades. The other would count them if the student showed up, did the work but still failed while not counting them when a student just didn’t attend or try to pass. The decision would impact some institutions far more than others.

They also have to decide how to deal with the Operating and Maintenance funding for research centers. In a formula based on student credits completed, research centers that don’t necessarily have students don’t qualify for O-and-M funding.

The proposal to let campuses keep the student fees, tuition and other non-state revenues they generate also drew questions from lawmakers. In the current system, those funds are used to offset the amount of state General Fund the system gets, practically eliminating any incentives for campuses to generate more student and other non-state revenue.

Finally, lawmakers must decide if they will agree to continue allowing the system to have flexibility to move money between budget accounts and even between institutions when necessary without legislative approval.

Denis said the subcommittee of Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means will meet again to reach agreement on those and other issues and close the university system budgets.

Those budgets contain upward of 15 percent of the total state General Fund appropriations for the coming two year budget cycle.


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