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Politics and Policy
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State treasurer candidates vow to replenish Millennium Scholarship funds

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University of Nevada, Reno

Funding for Nevada's Millennium Scholarships is slated to run out in the next several years. The program is overseen by the state treasurer, a post that's up for grabs this election, and both major party candidates agree these scholarships are critical to maintain for Nevada families. But Reno Public Radio's Michelle Bliss reports they offer different ideas for keeping the program alive.

The Governor Guinn Millennium Scholarship Initiative was set up fifteen years ago by the state legislature. Each year, roughly 6,000 students across Nevada receive up to $10,000 to help pay for their higher education.

The money covers less than half of their tuition and cannot be used for other expenses, like fees and books. But despite its limitations, both candidates for state treasurer agree on the program's importance.

"I think that this really needs to be the focus of attention," says Republican Dan Scwartz. "With all due respect to our elected officials, it's been ignored, which is why it's gotten to where it is now, and I think it's crucially important to the state."

Schwartz's opponent, Democrat Kim Wallin, agrees.

"Education is definitely our future here in the state," she explains. "We can't pay companies to keep coming here or give them abatements. We just can't afford that, and I think that if we started having an educated workforce and really beef that up, that'll help bring business here."

Nevada's annual Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement covers a big chunk of the program's funding, but the state's payout from tobacco companies has shrunk over the years as smoking rates continue to decline.

Another setback has been the economic recession during which the state withheld about $33 million from the fund.  Some of what was taken has been restored, but current treasurer Kate Marshall is projecting that the scholarship fund will only remain solvent through 2018. Analysis from the legislature suggests that the fund could remain intact through 2021, but either way, there's an upcoming expiration date.

Wallin, who serves as state controller now, says she plans on saving the program by making sure its funding is off limits for other state uses.

"I would like to see it set up more as a trust fund," she says, "so when we get onto hard times, we don't use the money from that to pay our bills because it's almost kind of self-defeating--we need education and then we take funding from the education fund.."

Opponent Dan Schwartz says he wants to pump more dollars into the program by increasing the state's earnings on its investment portfolio.

"What I want to do is take that $2 billion, structure it into three different pools--right now it's kind of a mish-mash--and then I want to direct each pool toward certain maturities," Schwartz explains. "The longer the maturity, the higher the interest rate."

Schwartz has worked in finance for 35 years for banks and securities firms. Before becoming Nevada's controller, Kim Wallin ran her own Certified Public Accounting firm. The Independent American candidate for treasurer, Kress Cave, declined to comment on the future funding of the Millennium Scholarship.

In addition to administering this program, the treasurer is also in charge of investing the state's money, along with overseeing its debt and unclaimed properties.

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