Legislature passes two bills, but the worst is still to come

Nevada Legislature Senate
Nevada Senate chambers during the 31st Special Session in Carson City on July 13, 2020. (Trevor Bexon/Nevada Independent)

The Nevada Legislature on Monday passed two of the seven bills that have been introduced during its 31st Special Session, which the governor convened last week in order to fill a $1.2 billion budget shortfall in Fiscal Year 2021.

The two bills — Senate Bill 1 and Senate Bill 2 — address capital improvement projects and the Millennium Scholarship. Both were passed unanimously by the Senate and Assembly with few fireworks and are expected to be signed by Gov. Steve Sisolak. The more high-profile bills, including the one currently proposing devastating cuts to health care and education, are still working their way through the legislative process.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s unfolded so far.

No capital, no improvements

Senate Bill 1 takes back $72.6 million of funding approved by the 2017 and 2019 Legislatures for capital improvement projects, including $20 million for an engineering building at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

While the bill affects dozens of projects, only nine will be canceled completely. The UNLV engineering building is one of them. That building was expected to bring together the engineering program, which is currently spread out across nine buildings, including in a repurposed commercial space next to a 99 Cents Only Store.

Other affected projects will either be scaled back or continue as planned by replacing the reverted general fund money with bond funds. Bond funds will offset $39 million of the $72.6 million in project cuts, reductions in scope account for $10.5 million, and cancellations reflect $23.2 million in savings.

State Sen. Chris Brooks during a hearing last week said UNLV was taking the brunt of budget cuts. In addition to the cancellation of its engineering building project, millions in public funding for a medical school building was also recently cut from to deal with the Fiscal Year 2020 budget shortfall.

Brooks said that when the economy recovers, legislators need to remember that.

The full list of projects affected by SB 1 is available here.

Millennium matters

Senate Bill 2 gives the Board of Regents the ability to temporarily waive eligibility requirements for the Millennium Scholarship.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and mandatory shutdowns of campuses across the state and country, Nevada System of Higher Education colleges and universities allowed students to request a “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” grade rather than a traditional letter grade for the spring and summer semesters.

When NSHE announced the option in April, they cautioned students that opting in could impact scholarship eligibility.

The Millennium Scholarship requires students maintain a 2.75 grade point average and take a certain number of credits per semester.

Senate Bill 2 gives regents the authority to approve waivers for these requirements and any others deemed appropriate. It will only apply for the upcoming academic year.

Officials estimate the waiver will help approximately 2,200 college students maintain eligibility for the popular program, which provides up to $10,000 in scholarship money for graduates of Nevada high schools who attend in-state public colleges. Affected students will receive the waiver automatically, according to an official from NSHE.

After the Senate vote, Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro credited the Millennium Scholarship as the primary reason she was able to attend a four-year university. A graduate of Chaparral High School in Las Vegas, Cannizzaro attended the University of Nevada Reno and Boyd School of Law at UNLV.

“I know it’s important for these students,” she said.

The Millennium Scholarship was created by Gov. Kenny Guinn using settlement money from a tobacco lawsuit. However, the program is not financially solvent and requires regular biennium appropriations from the Nevada Legislature. Treasurer Zach Conine introduced a bill during the 2019 Legislative Session to address the issue, but the bill failed to gain momentum.

Conine told lawmakers during an earlier hearing on SB 2 that his office would continue to work toward financial solutions to keep the program for future high school graduates.

CCSD bill shelved

The Nevada Assembly on Monday also voted to move Assembly Bill 2 to the clerk’s desk, a procedural move often described as a death sentence. The bill would have allowed Clark County School District to recoup money saved by individual schools. Typically, such money is kept at the school level and referred to as “carryover” for future use.

AB 2 received an icy reception from legislators and education advocates alike during a hearing Saturday. Opponents characterized the bill as inequitable since most carryover is created when teaching positions go unfilled — something that occurs far more often in low-income neighborhoods.

The bill prompted feisty comments from Speaker Jason Frierson to CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara on Saturday. The latter was notably absent during the bill’s presentation and discussion but popped into public comment at the end of the meeting to testify that the district did not support the bill and had asked it not to move forward.

Frierson pushed back, saying he wanted it on the record that the bill was an explicit request from CCSD and that the district’s about-face on the bill happened two hours prior to the governor’s official proclamation coming out.

“Too late,” he said. “You don’t get to light a firecracker and then run just before it goes off.”

Jara repeated his stance during a virtual town hall Monday, but the Review-Journal reported emails confirm Frierson’s account.

Independent of the drama of AB 2, the question of educational inequities in the budget cuts remains. Lawmakers are considering gutting the Department of Education’s budget by $163 million. The budget proposal includes eliminating $70 million in funding that supports economically disadvantaged students. Additionally, $31 million from the state’s Read By Grade 3 literacy program and $18 million in class-size reduction funding would be cut. Both are issues that disproportionately affect low-income students.

What comes next

With Senate Bills 1 and 2 headed to governor and Assembly Bill 2 shelved indefinitely, there are now four bills outstanding in the Legislature.

The Assembly has already placed Assembly Bill 1 onto their Tuesday agenda. AB 1 forces state employees to take furloughs or pay cuts. Also awaiting movement in that chamber is AB 3, which details brutal budget cuts.

The Senate meanwhile still has Senate Bill 4, a bill affecting public borrowing, and Senate Biill 3, which would have the mining industry pay estimated taxes in advance, make changes to the allocation of a government services fee charged by the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, and create a tax amnesty program.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.