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September 19, 2014

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Lawmakers back Guinn plan to save Millennium Scholarships

CARSON CITY -- Gov. Kenny Guinn patched together an idea to save the Millennium Scholarship program late last Friday, when he learned his staff had discovered about $32 million in extra funds.

He said he hoped the $32 million -- plus another $8 million a year from the state's unclaimed property division -- would keep the scholarship solvent until at least 2020. Legislative leaders from the Senate and the Assembly held a news conference Wednesday in support of Guinn's plan.

The program considered Guinn's legacy, which pays for tuition for Nevada high school graduates with a B average, is in trouble. It is funded by money from the state's tobacco settlement and that amount has decreased as people have quit smoking. There has also been a larger number of students taking advantage of the program than previously thought.

More than 40,000 students have used the scholarship with 18,000 taking part last year.

Guinn plans to restrict the scholarship to be used only in spring and fall semesters, and to prevent students who drop out of the program from re-enrolling.

The program, which gives winners up to $10,000 for tuition at a state college or university, has already seen some restrictions put in place to tighten it up.

The 2003 Legislature raised the the GPA from 3.0 to 3.1 for students graduating this year and next. The required GPA for students graduating in 2007 is 3.25.

Legislative leaders indicated they would like to see even more restrictions, though they emphasized it would not be based on family income levels.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, said they will look at ways to limit the scholarship by requiring a minimum GPA in certain core classes and stopping students from using it for remedial courses.

"We need to make sure they recognize this is not something they just get for nothing," Raggio said.

Titus added, "You want people to be committed to the program."

Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt said it has proved useful in recruiting companies to the state because she can tell them employees' children can afford college. Titus, who also teaches political science at UNLV, said she sees students from a variety of backgrounds on the scholarship.

About 74 percent of last year's graduating class took advantage of it, Guinn said.

Guinn calls it a victim of its own success -- not only are the tobacco funds dedicated to the scholarship coming in lower than expected, but also state leaders didn't realize how many students would sign up.

The scholarship was expected to be $73 million in the hole by 2010, and, less than two weeks into the legislative session, saving the Millenium Scholarship program was turning into one of the political hot potatoes.

Legislators were broadly opposed to Guinn's original support of floating $100 million in bonds for the scholarship. Assemblyman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, even indicated he might support phasing it out or turning over the money to colleges.

Guinn said he would have been willing to float bonds if the state didn't have the money, but there are plenty of extra funds to solve the problem now.

"It's not necessarily how you fund it but the fact that it's still there," he said.

The money Guinn's staff found is odds and ends turned up while staff members reviewing his proposed budget for the next biennium -- sometimes programs were underfunded, sometimes they had too much money, he said.

"When you have a budget as big as ours, a person might hit the wrong key," Guinn said, adding that many workers on the state budget worked long hours and weekends to put together the state budget.

"We're on a very short fuse to input some of this stuff," he said.

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