How does $27 million become $8.3 million and then revert to $27 million? Penn & Teller?
Building Nevada’s general fund budget is always a give-and-take process. The governor asks agencies what they want, and it’s almost always more than they’re going to get.
In the case of the Nevada System of Higher Education, the wish list came in at $190 million in “new money” for things that had not been in the previous two-year budget.
Within that $190 million higher-ed enhancement request was $27 million to begin a new medical school at UNLV. That was within the proposed budget approved in August 2014 by the Board of Regents.
After considering the numbers, Gov. Brian Sandoval’s chief of staff, Mike Willden, told Chancellor Dan Klaich that the enhancement budget needed to be cut from $190 million to $80 million.
“I met with the chancellor, saying it was not going to be possible to put $200 million more in the university system,” Willden said. “I instructed the chancellor and his staff to give me an $80 million proposal for new money on top of the base budget.”
When the paring down was finished, more than $100 million was cut, and the start-up money for UNLV med school was down to $8.3 million, according to budget spreadsheets. That’s a $19 million drop. (All these are two-year numbers for the 2016-2017 biennium.)
In his State of the State speech in January, Sandoval proudly announced, “The Board of Regents has recognized this need, and I am pleased to provide the first $9.3 million for the initial costs of establishing the new UNLV medical school.” Actually it was $8.3 million, but what’s a million here or there.
The popular Republican governor was taken aback when the criticism started.
Especially since he had given them everything requested.
Just not everything they originally sought.
While the budget was being put together, Klaich and two regents, then-Chairman Kevin Page and then-Vice Chairman Rick Trachok, visited Sandoval and Willden. They said $9 million was all they needed, Sandoval remembered. That was after Klaich had presented a revised request, cutting $100 million.
Sandoval said he told the three: “I can’t put $30 million in here if there’s not a plan to deploy it. They said $9 million would take care of it.”
By cutting the request by $19 million, the medical school opening would be pushed back a year to 2018.
“I felt I had put 100 percent of their request in there,” Sandoval said. “I had the three of them telling me this is all we need (for the medical school).”
Willden said the three “expressed their appreciation that the $9 million would be a good start.”
The gratitude Klaich, Page and Trachok had shown Sandoval in that private meeting was reflected in Klaich’s budget summary calling the $8.3 million a sign Sandoval strongly supported a medical school in Las Vegas.
But later, Klaich said in a written statement, “We indicated that we would work throughout the legislature to build on the Governor’s recommendation in the event that additional funding was available.”
By Feb. 24, when Page and Trachok were testifying before legislators, they wanted it all. They asked for the entire $190 million in enhancements, including the full $27 million for the medical school.
On May 1, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, approached Sandoval when he came to the Springs Preserve to bury a time capsule. She asked why he had allocated less than a third of the amount requested. She called his funding “a big disappointment.”
He told her he wasn’t done yet. ’I told her we had to see how it all came out with the budget.
“I made it clear to her my conscience was clear,” Sandoval said. “I had the three of them telling me this is all we need.”
About a week later, state Sen. Michael Roberson said he thought he could get another $19 million for the school.
Ultimately, with Sandoval’s backing, a bill was amended to create a 3 percent excise tax on fares for ride-sharing companies like Uber, as well as taxis, limos and charter bus services.
Regent Mark Doubrava first began pushing for a medical school in the spring of 2013 and follows the issue closely. At a regents’ meeting March 6, while the Legislature was still in session, he asked Klaich to explain how a $27 million request became a $9 million request. “Klaich didnt give me a clear answer,” Doubrava said. “I’m concerned that we act as a board and spend many hours trying to do our duty and that’s dismissed in a brief meeting.”
Klaich said there were no public meetings with regents to discuss what should be cut. He made the calls. “I gave the governor’s staff some options for implementing the … reductions I was told to make. I advised the chair and vice chair.”
Klaich, Page and Trachok were prepared to push the school’s opening back a year to meet the governor’s request, if additional tax dollars didn’t roll in.
But the governor looks as if he had to be pushed to support the medical school, when he thought he was giving NSHE officials, at least three of them, exactly what they wanted.