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UNLV, DRI one step closer to getting land grant status

By Jeri Chadwell

Legislation that would give the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the Desert Research Institute the same land grant status that the University of Nevada, Reno has long held looks very different than it did at the start of this legislative session.

Land grant universities were established by the Morrill Act of 1862 and later expanded under the Hatch Act of 1887 and Smith-Lever Act of 1914. Land grant status confers eligibility for federal funding, often with state matching requirements, to execute a three-fold mission of agricultural teaching, research and cooperative extension programming.

Much of the opposition to Senate Bill 287 introduced by Clark County Senator Dallas Harris has been dropped as a result of amendments to the bill, which, as originally introduced, sparked fears that it could gut UNR’s statewide Extension programming.

The original version of SB 287 might have resulted in federal land grant funding being divided between the three institutions. Now, that funding would remain under the control of UNR.

UNR receives about $2 million a year in federal dollars, which are matched in part by the counties and the state to support agricultural programs through the College of Agriculture, the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Extension program. The Extension program has more than 200 personnel who, with the help of volunteers, deliver non-degree, educational programs ranging from gardening to radon education.

Proponents of SB 287 have said that conferring land grant status on UNLV and DRI would give the institutions an edge in applying for other federal funding.

UNR’s Dean of the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, Bill Payne, told This Is Reno in April that this is not the case.

Bill Payne, Dean of CABNR at UNR
Bill Payne, Dean of CABNR at UNR

“The idea that was brought up over and over again, that this is magically going to bring in more funds was ludicrous. It was disappointing to see how readily so many people bought into that,” he said. “There is a federal formula that decides how much capacity funds states get, and that’s based on the number of farms and the number of people living in rural areas.”

Payne explained that the state contributes between two and two-and-a-half times the federal funds received, while other states like Idaho, Utah, New Mexico and Kentucky contribute significantly more to the programs associated with their land grant institutions.

Payne said federal funds “are peanuts” and that the state’s higher education institutions would be better suited to work together to seek competitive grant funding through the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), into which more and more funding is being channeled—adding that DRI has already received such funding. Institutions need not have land grant status to apply for AFRI grants.

The most recent amendment to the bill, which would ensure that current Extension programming would not be disrupted by the divvying up of federal funds, also removed a fiscal note from the Nevada System of Higher Education totaling close to $3.8 million over the next biennium—including an estimated $1.7 million in lost federal funding and more than $2 million additional in lost personnel and operating money.

Following the most recent amendment to the bill, Payne told This Is Reno that it’s an improvement but still could result in unintended ramifications.

“The implication is that no federal, state or local (county) funds that are currently received by Experiment Station and Extension will be shared with UNLV or DRI,” he said. “But there are still unknowns and in particular how the federal government (NIFA) will interpret the bill and how future regents or legislatures…will interpret the bill. I do appreciate the many people who worked to hold harmless UNR, the Experiment Station, Extension and the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology, and Natural Resources.”

Former Senator Warren Hardy, now a lobbyist, presented the bill with Harris before the Senate Finance Committee on May 18. He stressed that UNLV as an institution is most concerned with obtaining land grant status and takes no objection to keeping federal funding intact for current Extension and experiment station programming.

Warren Hardy

“I will tell you, Mr. Chairman, it has not always been the case that Southern Nevada and UNLV have felt good about the direction of the Cooperative Extension in Nevada,” Hardy said. “That is not the case today. We think they’ve done an amazing job.”

The Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously to amend and pass SB 287 to the Senate floor. It remains to be seen if the bill will make it through the Senate and Assembly during the final days of the session.

A similar measure—Assembly Bill 407—passed in both houses of the Nevada Legislature in 2017 but was vetoed by former Gov. and now UNR President Brian Sandoval.

In a statement concerning his veto of AB 407, Sandoval wrote that UNR “has been the only ‘land grant’ university in the state. … It is a system that has worked exceptionally well, and such a dramatic disruption to that system, as proposed by Assembly Bill 407, is not justified, especially in light of the significant risks the bill presents to successful, longstanding university programs and critical federal funding.”

Sandoval earlier this month told reporters from the Nevada Independent that he would not oppose the bill if UNR’s Extension programming was protected in the way that last Tuesday’s amendment achieved.

Those who remain in opposition to SB 287 include the Nevada Farm Bureau and UNR’s Faculty Senate.

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