Following the subcommittee hearing on the university system’s budgets that raised questions about the damage being done to community colleges and the Desert Research Institute, Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson gave some hope there’s going to be a fix.
“We are going to work to help DRI and the rural schools,” Roberson said following adjournment of the joint Senate Finance-Assembly Ways and Means subcommittee on higher education.
Roberson also promised during the meeting lawmakers would find a way to pump more money into the proposed UNLV medical school project.
The money, Roberson made clear, will come from an amendment to the bill to regulate Uber and other ride-hailing companies.
That amendment imposes a 3 percent tax on all rides by those companies and cab companies, generating up to $100 million every two years.
Western Nevada and Great Basin colleges are the two schools hurt by the new state funding formula that’s weighted toward full-time students and cuts state funding for those who get a failing grade in a class.
That new formula increases General Fund appropriations for every school in Nevada except Western Nevada College and Great Basin. WNC’s general fund cash would decrease 12.6 percent in 2016 and 12.5 percent in 2017. Great Basin would be cut by 16.3 percent and 16.2 percent under the formula.
At the same time, because DRI is a research institution, not a classroom teaching campus, its funding would decrease 8.9 percent and 9.4 percent in the governor’s proposed budget.
Assemblyman Randy Kirner, R-Reno, said those cuts “give me a great concern.”
“I really don’t appreciate how much these cuts will have to these institutions but I suspect they will have a dramatic effect,” Kirner said.
Kirner was joined by Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Reno, who pointed out the system and regents recommended “bridge funding” to carry those two small schools through until they could stabilize. But the governor’s budget eliminated the $3 million for GBC and $2.3 million for WNC.
“I’m concerned that our rural community colleges are on life support as it is,” said Assemblyman James Oscarson, R-Pahrump. “Eliminating this funding creates a huge challenge for them.”
The first vote on whether to eliminate the “bridge funding” stalled when those three Assembly members voted against the cuts. But Assembly Majority Leader Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas, quickly exited the room to retrieve Marilyn Kirkpatrick D-North Las Vegas, the seventh lower house member of the panel. After Chairman Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, called for a re-vote, she joined those supporting elimination of the bridge funding, as did Kieckhefer. The subcommittee’s decision can be reopened if more funding is found.
Kieckhefer said he’s hopeful the money from Roberson’s plan is going to fix budget shortfalls including for the community colleges and DRI.
When the subject of DRI came up, Las Vegas Republican Derek Armstrong questioned why the budget plan pumped $1.7 million in additional research money into UNLV. System officials said the money was designed to “grow research at that institution.”
But Armstrong pointed to the $2.1 million reduction in funding to DRI saying that’s already a world class research institution and, “it seems it would be better to sustain them rather than growing UNLV.”
He later pointed out DRI has some of the nation’s top water resource experts saying in the current drought it’s vital to support those experts.
“We need to try make some of these rural colleges and DRI whole,” said Oscarson.
“Concern over DRI is certainly warranted but I don’t necessarily agree this is the place to fix it,” said Kieckhefer before taking a vote to approve shifting that cash to UNLV.
The proposed university system budget totals $1.64 billion over the biennium, an increase of about $140.7 million over the current budget.
Of that total, just more than $1 billion is state General Fund money, an increase of $90.8 million. Student fees and tuition make up another $564.1 million, a $50 million increase. The remaining $10.7 million is federal funding and grants.
Of that total, just $21.32 million in General Fund money goes to Great Basin College and $23.77 million to WNC.
The total General Fund budget proposed for DRI is $13.67 million.
Roberson also vowed to provide the UNLV medical school project with the money originally sought. Sandoval’s proposed budget called for $8.3 million over the biennium, about $19 million less than the system requested.
He said the second medical school is of vital importance to the state as a whole.
The two full money committees are set to make final decisions on the university system budgets on May 15.