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Millennium Scholarship program slated for $12.6 million hit in governor’s budget balancing plan


by Sean Whaley – Nevada News Bureau

Among the multiple proposals identified today by Gov. Jim Gibbons to balance a state budget that is out of balance by $890 million is a hit to the Gov. Guinn Millennium Scholarship program for Nevada high school graduates.

The program, established by former Gov. Kenny Guinn and the Legislature in 1999, provides a per credit payment to qualified Nevada high school graduates who go on to college at a state institution.

Gibbons is proposing to defer a transfer from the state’s unclaimed property fund to the scholarship program to the tune of $3.8 million a year. He is also proposing to take $5 million from the scholarship fund itself in the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Steve George, a spokesman for state Treasurer Kate Marshall, who oversees the fund, said the taking of such an amount could put the program in jeopardy. Scenarios are being run on the ramifications of the proposal and will be made available in the next few days, he said.

But the taking of the $12.6 million could put the program in a deficit situation, George said.

Dan Burns, spokesman for Gibbons, said the taking of the $12.6 million won’t kill the program or eliminate the scholarship for students who are now receiving it.

“The governor doesn’t want to do anything to destroy the program,” he said. “The governor understands that education is the intellectual infrastructure of the future. But we need the program to give a little bit to keep the entire state alive. That’s the reality of the situation.”

Burns said the scholarship was never expected to last forever, and it may be time to consider means testing as a qualification so that the money only goes to those who really need it to make college affordable.

“If you look at our list, the money is coming from just about everywhere,” he said. “No area is not pitching in. The Millennium Scholarship is one of those areas.”

George said the scholarship program is expected to receive about $18 million this year and next from tobacco settlement funds, which flow to Nevada as a result of an agreement entered into between cigarette manufacturers and most states earlier this decade. The fund is then augmented with unclaimed property funds to keep it solvent, he said.

But the fund is currently paying out about $25 million a year to scholarship recipients. So the transfer of $12.6 million to help balance the state budget shortfall is a concern, he said.

“It definitely could put the program in jeopardy in the future,” George said.

Eligible students receive $40 to $80 per credit hour depending on where they attend and the level of the course. Students must maintain eligibility as determined by grade point average. The scholarship cannot be used for remedial coursework.

George said that since its inception, about 59,000 Nevada high school graduates have taken advantage of the program, with about 20,000 earning degrees at one of the campuses of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

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