State Officials, Lawmakers Reject Claim That Transfer Of Funds To Scholarship Program Was Improper

CARSON CITY – State officials and lawmakers are rejecting the suggestion that they acted improperly last year when fees generated from several college savings programs were shifted to shore up the cash-strapped Gov. Guinn Millennium Scholarship for academically eligible Nevada high school graduates.

But one former lawmaker, who voted for the transfer, acknowledges he remains concerned about the decision.

The Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee voted in July 2010 to transfer $4.2 million in fees from the college savings programs to the Millennium Scholarship to ensure eligible college students would get full reimbursement for classes they took last year.

The College Savings Board had previously voted to use the money for other purposes, including support for the Nevada Prepaid Tuition program, a separate fund managed by the Treasurer’s Office for Nevada families to save for college within the Nevada System of Higher Education.

The transfer was unanimously approved by the 21 members of the IFC after lawmakers were told the fees to be used to shore up the scholarship fund would not affect participants or their investments in the separately managed college savings programs. The fees are paid by families investing in the various college savings plans to brokers, who in turn remit a portion of those fees to the state Treasurer’s Office.

Just over 471,000 college savings accounts, most of them from out-of-state residents, have been opened in the four programs offered through the state Treasurer’s Office as of March 31, 2011. Just over 7,000 Nevadans are enrolled in the programs and they do not pay any fees for participating.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative Nevada think tank, on Wednesday published an article by Steve Miller suggesting that the shift of funds was illegal and that Nevadans participating in the Prepaid Tuition program may now have grounds to sue the College Savings Board because of the IFC vote.

Miller, vice president for policy at NPRI, cited a “nationally experienced securities attorney,” who was consulted on a confidential basis for the conclusions in his article.

“Because the Prepaid Tuition program was damaged by the IFC action — made financially weaker than it otherwise would have been — investors in the program would have legal standing against the program, said the attorney, who was consulted on a confidential basis,” he said in his article.

The Treasurer’s Office rejected the notion that the Prepaid Tuition program was harmed by the IFC action.

In a press release issued Thursday, state Treasurer Kate Marshall said the Prepaid Tuition program is funded at 108 percent.

“The program is solid, as demonstrated by the dramatic increase in the funded status and a 15 percent increase in new contracts totaling 594 in 2011,” she said.

Nevada State Treasurer Kate Marshall

Steve George, chief of staff for Marshall, said the article did not indicate that the IFC vote to transfer the funds was unanimous. The College Savings Board did not object to the transfer at its August meeting following the IFC vote either, he said.

“Treasurer Marshall and this office had worked for months to try and come up with some solution that might work to keep the Millennium going forward to the next legislative session,” he said. “That was accomplished by that move, and that’s why I made the comment that this is something that works for the Millennium, and it also does not harm college savings and prepaid.”

Even with the $4.2 million transfer to the Millennium Scholarship, the College Savings Board has transferred nearly $1.56 million over the two past fiscal years to the Prepaid Tuition Program, George said.

Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said he believes the article unfairly singled out Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, for criticism. Horsford was co-chairman of the IFC at the time. The IFC is composed of the Legislature’s two money committees.

“I believe that we were making the best decision based on the information that was available to us and our legal counsel,” he said. “And so I think we all did it together and we did something that we thought was appropriate that we could do and legal counsel said we could do it.”

The transfer was needed to ensure kids received their Millennium Scholarships, Denis said.

Minutes of the July 21 special IFC meeting show that lawmakers were told the shift of funds was legal by Chief Legislative Counsel Brenda Erdoes.

Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, said he believes the transfer was both lawful and appropriate.

“I think that not only was it legal, but it kept students, who anticipated getting tuition money, in college,” he said.

But Hardy said he does not take issue with a watchdog group keeping an eye on the activities of the Legislature.

The allegation that lawmakers may have acted improperly has political implications.

Horsford is rumored to be considering a run for Congress in a seat as yet undefined due to a legal dispute over the required redistricting process.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas.

Horsford declined to comment on the NPRI article.

Marshall, a Democrat, is also running for congress in a special election in the vacant 2nd Congressional District against former state Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City.

Miller also quotes former long-time state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, as questioning the appropriateness of the transfer, but does not point out that Raggio “reluctantly” voted for the shift.

Raggio said the article accurately describe his concerns, which remain even with the advice from legal counsel. Funds held in trust should be used for the purposes specified, he said.

“Lawyers can differ, and even though Brenda said so at the time, there is always a question,” Raggio said. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if someone did challenge it.”

Miller said today he focused on Horsford in the article because the lawmaker was the point man pushing for the transfer. The unanimous IFC vote wasn’t included because lawmakers often rubber stamp such requests, he said.

Miller said he decided to run the story based on the one attorney’s comments because of the individual’s credibility. As a result of the article Miller said he has received a comment from one Nevada attorney about the potential for challenging the shift of funds.

The Millennium Scholarship is named for the late Gov. Kenny Guinn, who created the program in 1999 with legislative approval.

Gov. Brian Sandoval recommended adding $10 million in general funds to the scholarship in the 2011 legislative session, which was approved. The scholarship is now believed to be financially whole through at least 2015. It was originally intended to be fully supported by money from a tobacco company settlement, but those funds have declined annually due to lower smoking rates.

Audio clips:

Treasurer’s Office Chief of Staff Steve George says the vote by the IFC kept the scholarship program whole without harming the college savings or prepaid tuition programs:

072811George1 :23 savings and prepaid.”

George says the Prepaid Tuition Program is financially sound:

072811George2 :27 to go forward.”

Sen. Mo Denis says lawmakers made a unanimous decision based on the best information available:

072811Denis1 :20 could do it.”

Sen. Joe Hardy says the vote was legal and kept kids in college:

072811Hardy1 :19 stay in college.”

Hardy says he has no problem with watchdog groups keeping an eye on lawmaker activities, however:

072811Hardy2 :17 doing what’s right.”

Former Sen. Bill Raggio says he would not be surprised if someone does challenge the transfer:

072811Raggio1 :12 did challenge it.”

NPRI’s Steve Miller says he focused on Horsford in the article because the lawmaker was the point man pushing for the transfer:

072811Miller1 :32 some political power.”