Las Vegas Sun

July 27, 2014

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Lawmakers reach deal on Millennium Scholarships

CARSON CITY -- It took a special legislative session that dragged lawmakers into the wee hours of this morning, but the Nevada Legislature managed to eke out a compromise on Millennium Scholarships for students attending state universities and community colleges.

The Assembly passed the bill on a 36-5 vote this morning but had to send the bill back to the Senate because it amended the bill to fix a mistake. The Senate was expected to pass the bill later today. It will then go to the governor for his signature.

It became a special session by proclamation of Gov. Kenny Guinn after lawmakers failed to wrap up their 120-day regular session by the 1 a.m. deadline this morning. So after waiting a few more hours for Guinn's proclamation, legislators took a mere 15 minutes to reach a bipartisan compromise.

Under the compromise Millennium Scholarship eligibility requirements would be tightened, subject to Guinn signing the bill into law. The changes were pushed by legislative Republicans based on their belief that the six-year-old program would run out of money soon if nothing was done. Democrats strongly disagreed, saying tighter requirements would make it harder for many students to afford higher education in Nevada.

What hasn't changed is that eligible students can receive scholarships of up to $10,000 and must be residents of Nevada for at least two years. Also, current scholarship recipients will not be affected by the proposed changes. That means they can maintain a 2.6 grade point average and still receive the scholarship.

What would change, affecting all students who begin college next year, is that they would have to maintain a 2.75 grade point average from their sophomore year forward in order to remain eligible for the scholarship. Also, they could not use the scholarship for more than 12 credits per semester, meaning they would have to pay for extra credits. Under the current program -- for which there were 17,442 student recipients as of last fall -- there is no cap on the number of credits that can be applied toward the scholarship.

"It's almost pretty much like it has been," Guinn said of the compromise, which he intends to sign into law. "The program should last until around 2017 but that will depend on how fast the state grows."

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, who participated in the special session conference committee that hammered out the compromise between the Senate and Assembly, said she felt the deal was sound.

"It was a good compromise that was surprisingly close to what the governor wanted," Leslie said. "It takes care of the cash flow problem. But it's too bad it had to happen this way."

Another conference committee member, Assemblywoman Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, termed the compromise "excellent."

"We used a grade point average for eligibility that was inclusive and we extended the life of the program," Gansert said. "I was very happy with the outcome."

Tobacco settlement money had been used to pay for the scholarships of up to $10,000 each for eligible students. But those funds have declined. Then came Assembly Bill 560, which was intended to shore up the program by pumping in $35 million in one-shot state funds plus $7.6 million a year in unclaimed property money.

But a conference committee made up of three members from both the state Senate and Assembly -- and totaling three Democrats and three Republicans apiece -- broke off talks at 11:30 p.m. Monday, 90 minutes before the 73rd regular session of the Legislature was to end.

Those talks broke down after state Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, and Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, engaged in a heated debate as the conference committee huddled around a table in the Senate leadership office. Beers argued in favor of a cap on credits or a hike in the grade point average required to retain a scholarship, stating that the tighter requirements were needed to keep the program fiscally solvent. Giunchigliani disagreed, saying the program could survive without changes.

At one point, Beers leaned back in his chair, looked at Giunchigliani, who is part of the Assembly Democratic majority, and said: "Yes, we concede the Assembly point of giving scholarships to illegal aliens."

The comment stunned not only Giunchigliani but Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, who said that Beers' remarks were unnecessary. Shortly thereafter, Raggio said: "We will not agree to something that spells the death of this program."

After 1 a.m. Tuesday rolled around without a compromise on the scholarship program, Assembly Majority Leader Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, declared an end to the regular session. She then delivered a lengthy speech that praised Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, for his legislative service, noting this was to be his last session because he is running next year for governor.

Perkins then choked up with a speech of his own, in which he recalled legislative accomplishments over the years. But he also criticized the media for the way it has reported on the current legislative session.

After the regular session ended, Giunchigliani was fuming to reporters in the hallway.

"It's the Bob Beers special session," she said. "He wants to penalize students."

Beers held his own impromptu press conference that blocked the entrance to the Senate chambers.

"It's either the Democrats want to kill the program or they want to turn it into an expanding, ongoing general fund expense," Beers said.

The last regular session that ended within its regulation 120 days occurred in 1999. Some lawmakers said the problem is not with the 120-day limit -- which replaced sessions that used to have no time limit.

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