April 19, 2014

NU President Milliken apologizes to Gov. Heineman for funding flap

University of Nebraska President James B. Milliken, in a written statement issued today by his office, said he has personally apologized to Gov. Dave Heineman for any misunderstanding about the financing of the Comprehensive Cancer Center in Omaha.

Earlier today, during a news conference in his office, Heineman harshly criticized University of Nebraska officials today, charging they misrepresented how they planned to finance the $370 million cancer center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

Specifically, Heineman criticized the university for seeking $40 million from the city of Omaha and Douglas County.

“I support the project. I believe the state supports the project,” Heineman told reporters. “But, the agreement was the one the University of Nebraska president told us: $50 million from state funds, $120 million in debt financing and $200 million of private fundraising.”

The legislature appropriated $50 million this past session to help finance the project, which has been divided into two phases. The university will receive the state appropriation when it raises $60 million in private funding to construct a cancer research tower in Omaha. A cancer hospital and clinic will be added, bringing the project total to $370 million.

The Omaha City Council is considering an increase in the cigarette tax to raise $35 million toward the project. The Douglas County Board of Supervisors has committed $5 million in inheritance tax revenue for the project.

Heineman said he wasn’t told the university would seek local public funding and asserted that would have changed the debate on the project.

“(The) university’s credibility and integrity is at stake,” according to Heineman. “We need to be more transparent, more honest and more open. This is a good project, but it was based on that original agreement.”

Milliken’s office released the statement late in the afternoon.

“The proposed cancer center was first announced in January, and it was always envisioned as a public/private partnership. It is apparent, however, that our statements were not always clear or consistent, and I understand the Governor’s concern. Governor Heineman and I have had a close working relationship for years, and I have personally apologized to him for any misunderstanding.

“I think it’s important to note that the only part of the project addressed specifically in state legislation is the $110 million UNMC cancer research tower, which will be funded entirely by the $50 million state contribution and a $60 million private match. This aspect was the subject of much discussion with Chairman Heidemann and the Appropriations Committee and others. The fundraising for the additional $260 million began in earnest following the legislative session, and some aspects of it developed over time. For instance, as I have told the Governor, I am not aware that any discussions about a tax in Omaha took place until recently. In his report to the Board of Regents last week, Chancellor Maurer said that the city and county recognize the great value the cancer center brings to the Omaha metropolitan area and are interested in participating.

“This continues to be one of the most promising initiatives in our history, and I am truly excited about the potential for cancer research and treatment as well as significant economic development. I am gratified that the Governor has continued to state his support for the project.”

Milliken declined a request by Nebraska Radio Network for an interview on the controversy.

Shortly after Milliken’s office released the statement, the governor’s office released a written response.

“I appreciate the statement by University of Nebraska President James B. Milliken acknowledging the University’s miscommunications about the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s proposed cancer research center.

“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.

“President Milliken and I have a very good, professional relationship, and I want that to continue. I accept his apology,” Gov. Heineman said in the written statement.