Nevada Senate during the 2019 Legislative Session. (Nevada Current file photo)
Nevada Democrats seemed determined Monday to pass their education platform, and they weren’t going to let anything stop them — not the minority party, not public comments, not the clock ticking down to their sine die deadline.
When all was said and done, Democratic leadership declared success as the clock struck midnight on the 120th day of the 2019 Legislative Session. They had passed a long-promised revamping of the state’s outdated funding formula and brought additional revenue streams to the K-12 education system.
Here’s how it happened.
The final day of the session began with a hope — however slim — that Democrats could convince one Senate Republican to vote in favor of SB551, a bill to extend a modified business tax. The incentive: money for Opportunity Scholarships, a scholarship program for low-income students funded by corporate donations given in exchange for tax breaks.
It wasn’t enough.
However, when it became clear no Senate Republican was going to break from the party and provide Democrats with a two-thirds majority approval for the bill, the Democrats quickly sprung into action. They allowed the two-thirds vote to fail, immediately called for the original bill to be reconsidered, then promptly introduced a new amendment they had waiting in the wings.
Their new amendment removed the requirement for approval by a two-thirds majority, which Democrats always contended was unnecessary but which they sought in hopes of staving off a potential legal battle from Republicans who disagree. Perhaps even more telling, the new amendment included a provision to ax what exists of the education savings accounts (ESA) program.
Education savings accounts are a “school choice” voucher program created by the Republicans two sessions ago but functionally frozen because the Nevada Supreme Court ruled its funding mechanism unconstitutional. ESAs have received very little (if any) attention during this session. One Republican senator seemed to acknowledge as much, suggesting their eleventh-hour entrance into the conversation was done to get a rise out of Republicans.
“They are not going to get a rise,” said state Sen. Scott Hammond. “We all know where this bill is going to be headed in the future.”
In their floor statements, Hammond and other Republicans insisted the state’s finance division had confirmed with them that more than $100 million of unallocated funds were available in the budget, meaning education could be funded at the level Democrats desired without new revenue.
Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro pushed back.
She argued that using money freed up by the budget elsewhere would amount to a one-time allocation rather than an ongoing revenue stream, which is what the education system actually needs.
“It isn’t a surplus that will fund education long term,” said Cannizzaro. “So either we can say in this moment there may be some money, or we can say we believe in funding education long term, or we can sit here and argue semantics.”
Cannizzaro characterized the Democrats attempt to add the requirement of a two-thirds approval as “meeting halfway.”
Republicans criticized that as well as the entire political process, accusing the Democrats of introducing bills and amendments on the last day of the session when lawmakers don’t have enough time to fully vet or debate issues.
Those criticisms evoked a fiery response from state Sen. Pat Spearman.
“This is far more time than we had in 2015,” she said, referencing that year’s Republican-controlled legislative session. “I have a lot of colleagues who were here in 2015. It was 10 minutes to 12 (o’clock). You voted for that legislation. Rammed it right down. Don’t try to teach me; ‘Oh, this is last minute.’ Don’t insult my intelligence.”
In addition to the modified business tax bill, Democrats also voted through AB309, a bill that gives counties the option of raising their sales tax in order to raise revenue for specific purposes. The original bill allowed counties to supplement education (including teacher salaries) but subsequent amendments extended support to affordable housing, reducing homelessness and “certain programs for workforce training.”
Clark County School District, whose teachers are currently threatening to strike if the upcoming school year begins with budget cuts, issued a press statement claiming that SB 551 and AB 309 will provide the district with enough funds to honor promised raises.
“Clark County Education Association’s authorization to strike is still on,” the union said in a statement Tuesday morning.
“Though CCSD has indicated that it will meet its obligations of paying educators salary increases, CCEA will not accept any budget cuts in the classroom,” the union said. “We have been consistent that the District must provide resources in the classroom as well as raises for educators. The two go hand in hand.”
NEW FUNDING FORMULA
After stalling behind the scenes in the Assembly for several days, the funding formula bill (SB 543) received a late-night amendment that helped push it through the Legislature and onto the governor’s desk.
The funding formula bill revises a complex formula known as The Nevada Plan, which was created decades ago when the population of the state was less than today’s current number of enrolled K-12 students. The revised funding formula, dubbed the “pupil-centered funding formula,” moves the state closer to what’s called a “weighted funding formula” that distributes money based off specific student needs.
Since the bill’s introduction in mid-May, the proposed funding formula has been criticized and debated by education advocates. Organizations representing mostly rural school districts have characterized it as a “freeze and squeeze.” Other advocates expressed mixed feelings, believing the new formula offered much-needed transparency but worrying that it would not fix any problems without new revenue attached to it.
The late-night amendment to the bill removed a requirement that the statewide base per pupil funding increase at the same rate as inflation. Now, the bill recommends that happen but only “to the extent practicable.”
Many advocates likened the amendment to removing the bill’s teeth.
No public testimony was allowed during the Assembly Way & Means Committee hearing, which took place less than two hours before midnight.
In a tweet, education advocacy group HOPE for Nevada called the amendment “a pile of garbage” and stated they would have rescinded their previous support of the bill as a whole.
Educate Nevada Now said in a press release that the bill does not address the important issue of supplanting — whereby legislators loudly proclaim they are giving more money to education then quietly remove the same amount elsewhere.
“The amendments make it clear that there is no intent from our legislature to even lay out a path towards adequate funding that Nevada students deserve,” read part of the statement.
In its own press release, CCSD downplayed the severity of the late-night amendment, saying the funding formula bill still “provides more transparency about when education funding is repurposed and discourages ‘supplanting.’”
The amendment also changed provisions regarding the new Education Finance Commission created by the bill. Some believed the commission as proposed in the original bill language was too powerful. The amendment moved some decisions from the commission to the Department of Education.
In a statement released after the official close of the session, Gov. Steve Sisolak indicated he would sign the modified business tax, the sales tax, and funding formula bills within the next few days.
This story was updated to include the Clark County Education Association’s statement released Tuesday morning.
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