Money protections for UNR’s Extension may clear the way in land-grant debate

With the last-minute addition of an amendment gutting several provisions that could have affected funding to UNR’s Cooperative Extension, the Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to approve SB287, a measure that would formally recognize UNLV and the Desert Research Institute (DRI) as land-grant institutions alongside UNR.

In adding a provision that would limit the law from affecting the Extension’s appropriations or expenditures, the amendment removed a fiscal note totaling nearly $3.8 million, including $1.7 million in lost federal funding and more than $2 million more in lost personnel and operating money. 

Those potential lost dollars had been a major sticking point for UNR, whose administrators have complained for months that the legislation would decimate funding for popular programs run through the Extension without providing the means to replace those programs elsewhere. 

“We've said that all along,” UNR President Brian Sandoval said in an interview with The Indy last week. “To dilute any of that federal funding, to interrupt any of the programming that's going on, could be very harmful.” 

This week’s movement on SB287 comes after years of debate on the issue of land grant status. Most recently, UNLV and DRI were nearly cemented in state law as land-grant institutions in 2017, though then-Gov. Sandoval vetoed the measure on the grounds that it would do more harm than good — again — by gutting Extension funding. 

UNLV and its backers have argued that the issue is one of funding equity, saying in part that the lack of federal recognition of land grant status — despite legal opinions in their favor — have prevented efforts to pursue some lucrative research grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And while Extension funding may have proved a key sticking point for UNLV in past debates on the issue, proponents of the bill — namely the business-backed non-profit Council for a Better Nevada (CBN) — signaled Tuesday that that position has softened. Speaking before the committee, CBN lobbyist Warren Hardy said the primary policy goal now remains a preservation of section 6 of the bill, the core provision that formally recognizes UNLV’s land grant status. 

“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,” Warren Hardy, a lobbyist for CBN, told the committee. “That is not the case today. We think they've done an amazing job.” 

With the fiscal note resolved, the bill will next head to a vote on the Senate floor. 

The committee vote on SB287 was just one part of a slew of activity this week on a handful of higher education issues still kicking around Carson City. Among the others: 

  • In a major boost to the currently-in-construction Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, a 19-1 vote in the Senate will send SB434 — a $25 million appropriation to help fund that school’s construction that was cut during last year’s special session — to the Assembly. 
  • After cruising through the Senate 20-0, SJR7 — a measure that would mimic the failed 2020 Ballot Question 1 by removing the Board of Regents from the state Constitution — hit its first opposition in the Assembly on Tuesday when 11 Republicans voted against it, leaving the final tally at 30-11. With passage secured in both Houses, however, the resolution will move on to the next legislative session, where it must be approved again before heading to the ballot.
  • SB347 — a bill that would create a sexual misconduct task force for NSHE and authorize a system-wide climate survey — received a major amendment Tuesday in Senate Finance as its language was merged with a similar measure from the Assembly, AB384
  • After passing through the Assembly on a near party-line 28-14 vote last week, AB450, a bill from the governor’s office that would create a study committee tasked with re-examining community college funding and governance structures, received its first hearing in the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections committee. 
  • One higher education bill that still lives — but has not moved — is SB373, a measure that would grant collective bargaining rights to NSHE faculty. The measure was re-referred to Senate Finance with fiscal notes attached in April, but as of Wednesday, it remained unclear if the bill will receive a hearing to resolve those notes before the session ends.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.