NU President apologizes for 'misunderstanding' on taxes

Artist's rendering of the planned cancer research center (Courtesy image)
September 19, 2012 - 10:39am

LINCOLN - University of Nebraska President J. B. Milliken has apologized for any misunderstanding after Gov. Dave Heineman blasted the university for seeking tax dollars from Omaha and Douglas County to build a cancer research center.

The controversy centers on the university’s request for $5 million from the Douglas County inheritance tax, and another $35 million from an additional cigarette tax in Omaha. Heineman said those requests were never mentioned when the university asked for state funds earlier this year. At that time, he said, university officials, including Milliken, were saying the project would be built with$ 50 million in state funds, $120 million in borrowing and $200 million in private donations. Now, he said, they’ve changed their tune.

KEY PLAYERS

J.B. Milliken, NU president

Dave Heineman, Nebraska governor

Jeremy Nordquist, Omaha state senator

“They’re on the verge of losing my trust and confidence. They need to be more transparent, they need to be more open, and they need to be more honest. The University of Nebraska needs to stand up and say what happened,” Heineman said. “We’re just asking for transparency. If the agreement changed, when did it change, who made the change and why weren’t we told about it?”

In a written response, Milliken apologized for any misunderstanding. He said that the cancer center was always envisioned as a public-private partnership.

“It is is apparent, however, that our statements were not always clear or consistent, and I understand the governor’s concern,” Milliken said in a statement. “Governor Heineman and I have had a close working relationship for years, and I have personally apologized to him for any misunderstanding.”

Milliken added that some aspects of the fundraising have developed over time, and he was not aware of any discussion of taxes in Omaha until recently.

In response, the governor issued a statement saying he appreciated Milliken’s statement.

“It is now clear that the original proposal regarding the private fundraising was changed after the legislature adjourned, and after I had signed the bill into law,” he said. “President Milliken and I have a very good, professional relationship, and I want that to continue. I accept his apology.”

Heineman also criticized some state senators who defended the university last week. Among them was Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist. Nordquist, citing language in the appropriation bill, rejected the idea that aside from state funds and borrowing,  university officials had said they would use only private contributions. 

“That wasn’t the case, at least in my conversations with them. Other options were on the table. These (cigarettes and inheritance) weren’t the specific ones that they mentioned, but we didn’t take these off the table, either,” Nordquist said. “Had the legislature only wanted state funds (or)… private funds, we would not have put language in the bill that said ‘or other funding sources’ were an option.”

Nordquist pointed out that Heineman had originally opposed state funding, saying the timing was bad, before later changing his mind.

Heineman said he thinks the cancer center project is a good one, but he added that the project would have received more scrutiny last session if lawmakers had known that local taxes might be involved. And he said the appropriations language says state funds won’t be disbursed until $60 million in private funds have been raised.

“I fully expect this will be discussed again in the Nebraska legislature,” he said.

For his part, Milliken said he is “gratified that the Governor has continued to state his support for the project.” The legislature is scheduled to reconvene in January.

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