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Lawmakers add $100 million to university budgets

Legislative money committees on Wednesday adopted the four-point plan presented two weeks ago by the Nevada System of Higher Education, including restoring $80 million in General Fund support not included in the governor’s budget.

The total General Fund add is actually $100 million, but $20 million of that was supported by Gov. Brian Sandoval in a budget amendment.

That doesn’t bring the system’s funding back to current levels. The governor’s recommended General Fund budget was $254 million less than the current biennium.

While the Republicans on the joint committee backed some of the policy changes requested by the system, they voted against several pieces designed to add revenue to the campuses.

They also opposed a move by Democrats to cut in half the tuition and fee increases students will face during the next two years. The plan presented May 7 included a 13 percent tuition and fee increase each year for a total of 26 percent. That would have raised $43.3 million in the second year of the biennium. The $21 million raised by the first 13 percent boost would be brought up to $43 million by other funds. Chancellor Dan Klaich said the campuses could find that in a variety of places including capital project accounts.

When Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, asked if the system could eliminate the need for that second 13 percent tuition increase by finding the $21 million in the second fiscal year as well, Klaich said, “that’s very doable.”

Assemblyman Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas, said that is a better plan.

“The students have done their part,” he said. “The university has done its part and this committee has to be ready to do our part.”

But Republicans including Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, balked.

He said the original plan was based on shared sacrifice with students and the state contributing equally. Now, Kieckhefer said, it appears the students aren’t contributing as much as the $80 million the state is being asked to put in the pot.

He also questioned how the university system was magically able to find $20 million each year to reduce the load on students.

“It took all of two minutes for the chancellor to say, yah, I can find another $20 million,” Kieckhefer said.

The committee, however, voted not to redirect 9 cents of the Washoe and Clark property tax revenues directly to the university system. Kieckhefer and Kirner pointed out that was a $121 million hit to the system budgets, more than offsetting the addition of General Fund cash.

“I’m going to oppose this not because I want to but because I just don’t think we have the money,” said Kirner.

Conklin said not having enough money was the fault of the Legislature.

“As far as I can tell, we chose not to have the money to pay for this,” he said describing Nevada’s government as “cheap.”

The move not to send property tax money to higher ed passed on a party line vote with the GOP opposed.

The committee adjourned after that decision, seemingly ignoring the fact their vote knocked a $121 million hold in the system budget. But lawmakers are reportedly planning to “backfill” that hole.

While county officials were pleased at the committee vote, their celebration may be premature since lawmakers are reportedly planning to sweep that 9 cents directly to the General Fund instead of to NSHE, then provide most of it to the university system, keeping a bit for other projects on their list.

The committees did, largely with support from both parties, make several changes to give the campuses and Board of Regents more autonomy.

They voted to equalize state and other funding between the two fiscal years of the biennium and give regents the ability to move money around between the different system budget accounts.

They also voted to roll a number of separate budgets into campus instructional or operating budgets. On that list are such things as intercollegiate athletics, the business center operations, Agricultural Extension and Cooperative Extension, University Press and State Health Lab. Klaich said that gives the system and campus presidents more flexibility in handling their specific needs.

INSIDE

Students call for compromise on university budgets, Page A5