Did half a billion over two years settle the education budget? Not exactly.

Questions continue to surround education funding, including the role, if any, of additional tax revenue. Signs in front of the legislative building call for a mining tax constitutional amendment. (Photo: MIchael Lyle).

Education advocates applauded lawmakers for approving $502 million over two years in funding for the long-awaited new K-12 funding formula, but the head of the state’s largest teachers union says the fight over revenue is far from over.

“What you saw today is part of it,” said Clark County Education Association Executive Director John Vellardita on Wednesday. “This is not the end game.”

His remarks highlight what’s still at stake in the waning days of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end in less than two weeks. CCEA, the collective bargaining unit for teachers within Clark County School District, currently has two ballot questions scheduled to appear before voters during the general election next year.

Vellardita has previously said the two initiatives — one to raise gaming tax, the other to raise sales tax — would be used as leverage for finding additional revenue sooner. The union has said it plans to withdraw one or both of the ballot measures if significant progress is made on K-12 funding, but Vellardita has never elaborated on what meets that threshold.

Wednesday’s action from the joint budget committee wasn’t that, according to Vellardita.

“They’re still on the table,” he added of the dual ballot initiatives. “We’re prepared to do the right thing if the right thing isn’t done.”

What happened Wednesday

On Wednesday, the joint budget committee approved $502 million in general fund dollars over the upcoming biennium to implement the state’s new Pupil Centered Funding Plan, which is being rolled out this legislative session. Most of that money is expected to go directly toward the funding formula’s base per-pupil amount. It should bring the statewide average per-pupil base funding to $9,096 for the upcoming 2021-22 school year and $9,195 for the 2022-23 school year, according to data presented to the budget committee.

Because lawmakers have reduced the education budget in other areas and changed the funding structure significantly, it was not immediately clear how these new funding levels compare to current spending levels.

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson during Wednesday’s hearing asked legislative staff for an apples-to-apples comparison of the overall funding levels, which include the base per-pupil funding and additional state money. But fiscal staff said those numbers would not be available until after other legislative actions were accounted for. Staff expects it to be included with the final education budget bill.

Still, the move to fund the Pupil Centered Funding Formula is being described as a significant step in education policy for the state. The new funding formula will apply to 93.6% of K-12 students. The remaining students are enrolled in rural counties where school districts are being held harmless at current funding levels.

“I’ve been waiting a damn long time to put this amount of money into education,” said Senate Finance Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas). “This is all about the base. All about making sure every student has that amount of dollars. Then we add the weights to it.”

Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer said the funding decision would put pressure on future lawmakers and governors to continue funding education.

“It’s not everyday you get to do something that, I think, will be significantly impactful for students,” he added, “but I do think today is one of those days.”

Frierson referred to the Legislature’s actions during the 2019 session and current session as “historic support for public education.”

In a statement, the Clark County School District called the funding formula budget “a huge step forward” and expressed appreciation to lawmakers for “signaling strong support for education.” The district noted that “Nevada still has a long road ahead to reach the national per-pupil funding average.”

Vellardita said the most important part of transitioning to the new weighted funding formula is having an appropriate base, but he noted lawmakers still weren’t at recommendations made by the Commission on School Funding.

That commission, which was created by the 2019 Legislature to study the new funding formula and explore revenue options for funding it, concluded last month that Nevada would need to invest $2.2 billion to $3.2 billion over the next decade to reach the national average per-pupil funding or the funding levels recommended by educational experts in a 2018 study of Nevada.

What happens next?

Lingering over the Legislature in the waning days of this 2021 session are the three proposed constitutional amendments to raise taxes on mining. Resolutions for those three proposals were passed by lawmakers during a special session last summer.

Progressive advocates have been pushing for one of the three proposals — now known as AJR1** — which would tax mining at 7.75% of their gross proceeds of minerals. Currently, mining companies are taxed on their net proceeds of minerals and the tax rate is capped at 5%.

If one of them is approved again this session, it would appear on the 2022 general election ballot for voters to approve or reject.

But not before being challenged in court. Rural counties have already indicated they would challenge the constitutionality of the passage of the resolutions on the grounds that mining was not named as a topic within Gov. Steve Sisolak’s official proclamation for the special session. Democrats have contended that only the topics of bills (not resolutions) need to be set within the proclamation.

The Nevada Supreme Court recently ruled that two bills passed by Senate Democrats in the 2019 session were unconstitutional because they did not pass by a two-thirds majority.

Legal concerns aren’t the only impediment.

Democrats, who historically have not fared well during midterm elections, are quietly wary of placing a mining question on the 2022 ballot. They believe it would drive up the rural vote, which could hurt Democrats in statewide races. Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak is up for reelection next year.

Legislative leaders have been tight-lipped in their public comments on the prospect of raising new revenue within the state. Democrats would need four Republicans — two in each chamber — to vote with them on any revenue bill.

Shortly after the joint budget committee vote on Wednesday, the CCEA Twitter account posted that the union “appreciates the efforts of legislative leadership, the Governor, Gaming & Mining to make a great investment in our K-12 system.”

The tweet continued, “We are optimistic that before the session ends, our education system will be on the right track to reach the national average of per pupil funding.”

Vellardita declined to provide details on what types of revenue discussions are ongoing with legislative leadership and the gaming and mining industries behind closed doors, saying only that the parties were working “in a collaborative way.”

When announcing their signature-driven petitions, CCEA said their dual proposals would raise an estimated $1.4 billion more in revenue each year. The gaming tax hike was estimated to bring in $350 million in additional revenue each year, and the sales tax increase was estimated to bring in more than $1 billion annually.

Fiscal analysts during the 32nd special session calculated that, if AJR1** (or the similar SJR1**) were applied to 2019 gross proceeds of minerals, the mining industry would have paid $484 million more in taxes that year.

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.