Who wants a billion dollars?

one billion dollars
Gov. Steve Sisolak and CCEA President John Vellardita when a threatened teachers strike was averted in August. (Nevada Current file photo)

Politicians are “for” education. Just ask them.

Now the Clark County Education Association is giving those purportedly education-loving elected officials an opportunity to put some money where their mouth is.

CCEA says it will qualify an initiative, or maybe two initiatives, on the 2022 ballot to raise a billion dollars for education.

The union hasn’t decided what revenue streams it will target.

“Nothing’s off the table,” CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita said in an interview Wednesday.

But some things are off the table. CCEA will be gathering signatures for ballot initiatives, not constitutional amendments, Vellardita said, citing urgency and the requirement that constitutional amendments must be passed by voters twice.

That means whatever revenue streams CCEA decides to pursue, it won’t be lifting property tax caps and/or resetting taxable valuations on sale, which would require a constitutional amendment.

Also not on the table: income taxes, either business or personal, both of which are prohibited by the Nevada state constitution.

And the mining industry, if you ask it, will contend any attempt to increase its humiliatingly lilliputian contribution to the state budget is also enshrined in the state constitution, though that isn’t anywhere near as clear cut as mining lobbyists have led pliant legislators to believe.

Nevada’s lowest-in-the-nation gaming tax, the commerce tax, pot taxes, room taxes, hopefully not Nevada’s already too high and inequality exacerbating sales tax, or maybe the establishment of a new tax altogether — whatever CCEA decides to put on a ballot will be based on two criteria, Vellardita said. First, revenue streams must be capable of delivering an additional one billion American dollars to Nevada education, and second, it has to be something the public will support.

Hmm. Maybe a lottery. Just kidding! Lotteries are horrible policy. (For the record Vellardita and I did not talk about a lottery at all it just popped into my noggin later when thinking about things the public would support).

Amusing as it may be to speculate about taxes you, the Nevada voting public, might support, there is a procedural, but mostly political, hurdle or six before Nevada schools are funded at levels approaching adequacy.

Rather than gathering signatures on a ballot initiative and making a beeline for the voters, CCEA will gather them and get them certified to let the Nevada Legislature see if it would like to, you know, do something, so that the voters don’t have to.

The 2021 Legislative session promises to be the longest campaign event of the 2022 election cycle, when Gov. Steve Sisolak will be on the ballot. The chances of the Legislature passing, let alone Sisolak signing, a billion-dollar tax hike a year before his reelection campaign are twofold: slim, and fat.

Those chances will look even more remote if, in a not unlikely scenario, Democrats retake the presidency and make more congressional gains in 2020, which would spark an almost certain backlash from a fickle electorate and jeopardize tax-raising proposals, and Democrats, in a midterm election two years later. (As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Nevada Republican Party’s best hope for returning to relevance is Trump’s defeat).

“We are fully aware of what the playing field looks like in 2022,” and how in turn that will shape the political considerations of the 2021 Legislature, Vellardita said.

The 2021 session promises to be particularly awkward for Nevada Democrats if, in 2020, they manage to gain the two-thirds supermajorities in both houses required under the state constitution to raise taxes.

Because if Democrats gain a two-thirds majority and control the governor’s mansion, they will no longer have a super handy excuse for not fixing stuff. They will have to pass … something. 

Ideally, for Democrats if not working Nevadans, it would be something large enough to make CCEA withdraw support of its own ballot initiative(s). But small enough not to sink Sisolak’s reelection. But large enough not to disgust all the groups besides CCEA who would be saying “hey seriously we worked for you to get a two-thirds majority, how come you’re not funding all these things Nevada has neglected forever, jerks?” or words to that effect.

It’d have to be a Goldilocks tax. (Goldilocks is a fairy tale.)

All those procedural, but mostly political, considerations aside, let’s say CCEA channels Nancy Reagan, just says no, rejects whatever meager attempt at compromise might be deemed palatable by Sisolak, Democrats, and the donors who love them in 2021, and forges ahead with its billion-dollar tax initiative in 2022.

There’s another problem.

The initiative, Vellardita promised, will specify the additional billion bucks will all go to education.

Education isn’t the only thing Nevada has aggressively neglected.

Housing, transit, child & elder care, mental health, justice reforms, student debt relief and so many other needs have not been addressed in Nevada, a policy and political failure that in turn destabilizes households and families and makes life harder for working Nevadans than it needs to be.

Household instability and economic insecurity, exacerbated by shabby or non-existent public services, is also a – make that theleading indicator of poor educational performance. The factors most likely to have the biggest impact on student success at school aren’t about school.

Vellardita said he and his members have had that discussion. He argues a designated revenue stream for education will “take pressure off” your budgeteers in the Legislature, and free up money for other needs.

But it’s hard to see how more money would be spent on education while at the same time be freed up for other things, unless resources already allocated to education were diverted elsewhere, which or course sounds exactly like something your Legislature would do.

Vellardita also echoed the common policymaker refrain that the best way to help school-age Nevadans who are in or near poverty is to educate them so they can get good jobs. That view, Vellardita noted, “is in alignment with business.”

It’s also too often a rhetorical crutch, one especially favored by politicians and business leaders who would rather talk about something other than systemic causes of inequality. Singing the praises of “workforce development” distracts attention from more fundamental economic problems that can have far more impact on educational performance than school funding.

Or, as I’ve said countless times but will say yet again, if we could snap our fingers and suddenly every adult working Nevadan had an advanced STEM degree, at least one third of them would still be working in low-wage jobs with poor conditions, because those are the jobs we’ve got, and the jobs we are projected to have well into the foreseeable future. Education isn’t going to fix that. (Neither will a stadium, btw).

I said that, or something like it, to Vellardita. And he said fair point, or something like it.

But CCEA represents teachers who are trying to advance the educational system so that it creates more opportunity for struggling students, he said, adding it’s not the union’s job to provide a social safety net for those who have fallen through it.

“We’re not the party in power,” Vellardita said,

True enough. And while a billion-dollar ballot initiative to fund education and only education is far from perfect, it is orders of magnitude more ambitious than anything likely to be introduced, let alone enacted, by those who do comprise the party in power.

Meanwhile, how ambitious will CCEA’s initiative(s) be? And which tax proposals will CCEA determine are both big and popular enough to make the cut?

“We expect to have something filed in early January,” Vellardita said.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson has been writing about Nevada policy and politics for more than 20 years. He was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and wrote the then-groundbreaking Las Vegas Gleaner, which among other things was the only independent political blog from Nevada that was credentialed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spent a few years as a senior energy and environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, and has occasionally worked as a consultant on mining, taxation, education and other issues for Nevada labor and public interest organizations. His freelance work has been published in outlets ranging from the Guardian to Desert Companion to In These Times to the Oil & Gas Journal. For several years he also taught U.S. History courses at UNLV. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and then assistant managing editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper.