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December 20, 2014

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Regents agree on lobbying changes

In a rare showing of unanimity, university regents addressed several policy issues Thursday that first came to their attention in November personnel sessions that led to the removal of a community college president and his lobbyist.

The unanimous votes to strengthen the Board of Regents' policies to better regulate the activities and expenditures of institution lobbyists showed that while the board was divided on whether to remove the two, it believed there were problems that needed to be fixed.

Former Community College of Southern Nevada President Ron Remington and lobbyist John Cummings were removed from their positions and returned to faculty jobs last November in the controversy.

The agreement on these issues Thursday led to the first meeting in months that did not include a dust-up of some sort between regents or an accusation that the board had somehow violated the open-meeting law. The board was ahead of schedule and addressed four items the regents did not expect to get to until today.

In strengthening its policies, the regents unanimously gave the University and Community College System of Nevada chancellor the authority to approve and remove all lobbyists for the system and each institution and to establish internal policies governing the activities and reporting relationships of any approved lobbyists.

The regents also gave the chancellor the authority to review and approve all host expenditures, including those of lobbyists. Lobbyists must now submit a copy of their Legislature-related expense reports to the chancellor as well as to the state Legislative Counsel Bureau.

"We'll be able to hold her (Chancellor Jane Nichols) accountable and responsible," Regent Tom Kirkpatrick said. "That's the best way to get a handle on this."

Giving the chancellor the authority to approve lobbyists would allow her to "manage the whole lobbyist team for the system and yet still give us flexibility" in allowing institutions to still have input, Regent Jill Derby said.

Nichols said there are too many bills for one lobbyist alone to handle the whole system, and that Southern Nevada institutions were too far away geographically from Carson City to be an effective voice there without sending a lobbyist. At the same time some of the smaller community colleges cannot afford to send lobbyists and therefore aren't fairly represented, she said.

Nichols said she planned to work with the institutions to meet these needs and to ensure a level playing field in Carson City. She also said she wanted to make sure that lobbyist money was spent wisely.

"This is higher education money we are spending so we need to be very frugal while still being effective," Nichols sad.

In giving the chancellor this oversight, the regents also placed restrictions on what may be charged to host accounts, which include any hospitality charges of a president, lobbyist or institutional designees that provide a benefit by establishing good will, promoting a program or creating opportunities to advance the mission.

Under the new policy, host expenditures may only be incurred for reasonable expenses for meals, beverages and small gifts such as flowers or mementos and may not include more than a 20 percent gratuity.

All host accounts will also now be subjected to sample audits each year.

The issues of who may lobby for a system and how much they can spend wining and dining lawmakers came to a head at the closed personnel sessions that led to the reassignments of Remington and Cummings.

Some regents alleged Cummings circumvented the board in pursuing legislative money for security and to develop four-year programs that had not been approved by the board. Several regents also said they were appalled that the community college employed more than one lobbyist and reported some extravagant meal expenditures, such as $200 bottles of wine.

An audit of each institution's lobbyist expenditures, which regents on the audit committee reviewed earlier on Thursday, showed that Cummings and three other lobbyists from the community college had spent about $12,600 on travel and entertainment expenses alone. Originally that number had been reported as closer to $23,000 because it had included host expenses not associated with lobbying. But the amount was still significantly greater -- about $5,000 -- than any other university expenses for lobbyist travel and entertainment.

"I think things got out of hand that never should have gotten out of hand," Kirkpatrick said. "But when you look at those audits, other than CCSN, we're pretty good."

Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, and Assemblyman David Parks, D-Las Vegas, also addressed some of the questions regents had about the need for employee lobbyists to serve in Carson City.

Both said that lobbyists who work for a particular institution are far more knowledgeable and helpful in educating lawmakers of the need of a particular program than an outside lobbyist.

"That satisfied a lot of my questions and I'm satisfied with both (policies)," Regent Bret Whipple said. "Hopefully it curtails some of the problems we've had."

Regents also heard information on a new credential certification process that will be acted on at the June meeting. The proposed process will mandate each institution certify a candidate's academic credentials within 30 days and allows for employees to be terminated if they are found to have falsified their credentials.

Regents tabled an item to address whether institution employees may serve in the Legislature until appeals are heard on an attorney general's opinion that they cannot. The agenda item had previously been scheduled to address what procedure institution employees must follow in taking leaves of absence to serve in the Legislature, and was amended in a supplemental agenda to consider the attorney general's opinion.

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