A bill that promises more money for a backlog of school construction projects but would suspend wage rules favored by Democrats faced even more opposition in the Nevada Assembly than it did when it passed quickly through the Senate on party lines.
Democrats spoke out against a provision in SB119 that would suspend prevailing-wage rules, which are a sort of minimum wage for contractors, in school building projects. But they also adopted an argument more common among conservatives: that the bill imposes a tax burden without voter permission, and in spite of a 2012 vote in Clark County against the proposal.
“You’re sponsoring a bill which essentially is a tax increase,” Democratic Assemblyman Richard Carrillo said. “At the end of the day, voters are going to say, ‘What are they doing up in the Legislature? We voted this down, but yet they’re going to side-skirt the whole issue, fleece the voters.’ “
The bill would give school boards the authority to continue issuing construction bonds for 10 years beyond the time period approved by voters, although districts would not be allowed to raise property tax rates to pay debt service on the bonds. It would help ease overcrowding in districts including Clark County School District, which said it could fill 32 new schools to capacity right now.
Bond rollover was also proposed by Democratic Sen. Debbie Smith and is supported by school districts, the state school board association and the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce. Republican bill sponsors argued that extending a tax is not the same as raising a tax, and they said bond rollover was the most painless way to address construction needs.
“As we were going through the recession and pocketbooks were tight, people were not really aware of the need,” bill sponsor and Republican Sen. Becky Harris said about the 2012 vote. “My concern is that if we as a Legislature put this off and refuse to deal with the problems ... in two years, this body will have no option but to increase taxes in some capacity, and that could be pretty difficult.”
A bill provision that would suspend prevailing wage rules drew even more criticism. Scores of union protesters organized by the AFL-CIO marched outside of the Capitol, carrying signs and chanting that they wanted good jobs.
“If you want to fix the school system, raise the goddamn taxes,” Nevada AFL-CIO chief Danny Thompson said at the rally. “Don’t let them take it out of your paycheck.”
Prevailing wage rates preserve a common pay standard for a certain job in a certain county and generally prevent out-of-state contractors from undercutting local bids. For example, the state labor commissioner requires that a journeyman carpenter on a public works project in Clark County must be paid $53.76 an hour.
Republicans say the rate-setting process is flawed, and schools would be cheaper without the rules.
Democratic lawmakers asked whether removing the provisions would put more contractors on public assistance or force them to work two jobs. They also asked why the school construction bond issue was bundled with a less-palatable prevailing wage measure.
“We do not need to pit our kids against our parents,” Democratic Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said. “If you want parents to participate in the school, you better give them the opportunity to have one job.”
Republicans assert that the bond rollover would not pass the Republican-controlled Legislature if it didn’t include concessions on prevailing-wage rules. Sponsors also say they need to be prudent with taxpayer money if they circumvent the voters to extend bonds.
“It’s about building schools and how do we build them most effectively and efficiently,” Republican bill sponsor Sen. Ben Kieckhefer said.