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New medical school is money well-spent for Las Vegas

When Gov. Brian Sandoval put his pen to the jacket covering Senate Bill 514 on Thursday at UNLV, it was the end of a remarkably rapid journey and the start of a brand-new one.

Although the idea of starting a medical school at UNLV has been around for decades, a push in earnest for the project began less than two years ago. Las Vegas Regents James Dean Leavitt and Mark Doubrava sparked that discussion.

“Who’d have thunk that in less than two years, we’d be having a medical school in Las Vegas?” Sandoval asked the two regents at a bill-signing ceremony Thursday at the UNLV student union building.

Indeed, the institutional, financial, sectional and political hurdles were many. But Sandoval understands what many have said for years: In order for Las Vegas to evolve, it needs better health care. And part of that is training doctors right here in town, providing places for them to do their residencies and making sure Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates are sufficient to ensure everyone has access to health care.

“One of the things I talk about all the time is the new Nevada,” Sandoval said. “And part of that new Nevada is investing. And investing so we can have a healthy and educated citizenry, and investing so we have a vibrant and sustainable economy. But that comes at a price, and that’s where the tough politics in this comes in, that’s where the leadership comes in, that’s where courage comes in. That’s where integrity comes in.”

Sandoval singled out the Legislature’s leaders, most of whom were present for the signing: Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson; Senate Minority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas; Assembly Majority Leader Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas; and Assembly Minority Leader Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas.

But there are other lawmakers, those for whom the votes were even tougher. Assembly members such as James Oscarson, R-Pahrump; Speaker John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas; Erv Nelson, R-Las Vegas; and Derek Armstrong, R-Henderson, all of whom will likely face a conservative backlash for voting for the spending and the taxes that will help support it. (Six Assembly members — including three from Southern Nevada — and two state senators voted against the spending bill, and 10 Assembly members and three senators voted against the tax package.)

Sandoval said he met with lawmakers during the session to discuss the stakes. “Everybody has that quiet moment where they reach that place where they’ve got to make a decision where they knew [it] could affect their political futures, but they also know, will change history, will actually change the actual trajectory of a state, of a community, of a university.”

The bill contains $27 million for UNLV’s new medical school, as well as $3 million for the Boyd Law School, $25 million for UNLV’s new hotel college building and $1 million for the International Center for Excellence in Gaming Regulations. “There is no reason why Las Vegas should not have the No. 1 hotel school on planet Earth,” Sandoval said.

University system officials and UNLV employees — who’ve had plenty of reasons to look glum after recent legislative sessions — were all smiles on Thursday. “We don’t get many days like this,” Sandoval said.

“The governor and the people of this state, 50 years from now, after the [bicentennial] are going to look back to this legislative session in 2015, and say, ‘They did it right. They invested, they showed courage and they changed the trajectory of the state forever,’” the governor added.

While it’s impossible to really know precisely what may happen in the next half-century, there’s one thing we know right now: It did take courage and foresight on the part of many leaders to start the process of building a medical school, just as it did back in 1998 when the law school was started from scratch, a gamble no one could argue hasn’t paid off.

And all the work and sacrifice that led to Sandoval putting his pen to that bill jacket Thursday has the potential to help millions of Southern Nevadans into the future. Every person who helped make that happen, in ways large and small, deserves our thanks.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.