Nevada Legislature: No vouchers deal, yet; lawmakers facing deadline to shut down June 5 | NevadaAppeal.com

Nevada Legislature: No vouchers deal, yet; lawmakers facing deadline to shut down June 5

Even as three of the five bills that will end the 2017 Legislature arrived in the Senate Finance Committee Monday, a joint session of the Senate and Assembly money committees worked into the night to review the bill designed to resurrect the program that would give parents up to $5,900 a year in state money to put their kids in private schools.

While those in closed-door meetings over the past days gave few details, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, made it clear he likes the model currently funding the Opportunity Scholarship program. Those funds come from corporate donations that get businesses tax credits.

"What about the notion of ESAs being set up in a similar way?" he asked Gov. Brian Sandoval's chief of staff Mike Willden.

Frierson said a similar structure could fund the vouchers without dipping into the General Fund.

The governor's current proposal funds the ESAs from the General Fund cash totaling $60 million.

That concept was expanded on by Assemblyman Justin Watkins, D-Las Vegas, who said the accounts could be funded by private corporate dollars in exchange for a tax credit under the Modified business Tax.

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Watkins said his plan would incorporate a sliding scale starting at 185 percent of the federal poverty level. He said the top benefits would be even higher than the $5,900 per pupil state contribution — up to $7,000. But for those with higher incomes, it would drop in steps to less than $1,000.

He said the plan also would mandate eligible private schools follow non-discrimination and anti-bullying laws and retain accountability measures. He said it also would prioritize groups including foster children, military children and American Indians among others.

Watkins said he hopes the proposed amendment would bridge the gap between Republican backers and Democratic opponents.

Finding a compromise to resolve that dispute is key to clearing the way to passing those five bills that create the state budget.

Introduced Monday were the pay bill that funds state worker salaries, the K-12 Education bill and the Authorizations Act that includes almost all non-state money were presented to the Senate Finance Committee Monday.

The Appropriations Act that contains some $8.3 billion in General Fund money and the Capital Improvements bill will be introduced today by the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

Together, they lay out a total $26.2 billion-plus state budget for the coming two fiscal years.

"The good news is we're talking," said Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, who authored the school vouchers plan approved in the 2015 session.

He said the negotiations haven't "blown up" and that the two sides are getting closer.

But he and Willden, chief of staff to Gov. Brian Sandoval, said they aren't there yet. They planned a second meeting for Monday but it never materialized.

The savings accounts were approved in 2015 but the funding mechanism ruled unconstitutional by the Nevada Supreme Court because the necessary funding would have been taken out of the state's K-12 public education budget.

Sandoval this session put a separate $60 million appropriation in his budget to pay for them constitutionally.

There is already a bill in the mix that would provide the mechanism for implement the ESAs program. However, without a deal on the funding, that bill would accomplish nothing.

The discussions are reportedly about both a sliding scale for eligibility and means testing the program that, if approved, could provide parents more than $5,200 a year in state funds to help send their children to private schools. But one restriction also on the table would bar religious schools from getting the cash.

The K-12 Education bill contains not only the state's per-pupil funding but money to support a long list of programs form special education and the Gifted and Talented education but Zoom Schools, Victory Schools, Read By Three and other education efforts created by the 2015 Legislature.

The K-12 bill will provide per pupil support of $5,897 in fiscal 2018 and $5,967 per student in 2019.

One of the largest pieces is $187.7 million in 2018 and $199.8 million in 2019 for special education and students with disabilities programs. Another huge piece of the puzzle is class size reduction money — $147.4 million the first year and $152.1 million the second

Altogether, K-12 funding proposed for the coming biennium totals more than $6.4 billion including some $2.3 billion in state General Fund cash.

Under the Education First amendment to Nevada's constitution, that bill must be the first one passed by the Legislature.

The Authorizations Act is actually the largest of the five money bills because it contains more than $10 billion in federal funding – the largest block going to Medicaid which, with well over $1 billion in state dollars, is the largest single budget in the state. It also contains several billion worth of other non-state funding from the highway money to fees raised by a laundry list of agencies.

The pay bill, said Ways and Means Chairman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, contains the 2 percent a year pay raises for those employees and pretty much follows the governor's recommendations.

Then there is the Capital Improvement Projects bill that, this session, totals $346 million and funds all state construction, maintenance and repair projects in 2018 and 2019.

All five of those bills must "sit" for a day after they are introduced to give members time to review them before having to vote.

Lawmakers have until Monday, June 5 — the constitutionally mandated 120th day of the session — to finish the job.

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