Republicans in Nevada Legislature fuming over Democrats exposing school voucher talks

Republicans were fuming Tuesday over the decision by Assembly Democrats to make public a large chunk of the negotiations over the Educational Savings Accounts.

Assemblyman Justin Watkins, D-Las Vegas, presented what he termed an amendment to Senate Bill 506 spelling out how the so-called school vouchers would work, in effect claiming the plan as a Democratic proposal. Several Republicans say the amendment included most of the negotiated deal the two parties and the governor’s office have been working on for a month.

By mid-afternoon Tuesday, Andrew Clinger from the governor’s office met with Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, to try to put things back together. But as of 5 p.m., Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, said there were no meetings of the working group set.

The purpose of the ESA (or school vouchers) program is to allow parents to take some public money — originally up to the $5,300 per pupil — in state funding to help pay tuition to put their children in private schools. But the Nevada Supreme Court ruled the plan unconstitutional because it didn’t have its own funding source coming out of the 2015 Nevada Legislature. Gov. Brian Sandoval put $60 million into the budget to fix that problem and resurrect the program this legislative session.

“It was a shot across the bow for the governor and our caucuses,” said Hammond, the author of the ESA program two years ago and the driving force behind efforts to resurrect it.

He said neither legislative Republicans nor the governor’s office knew what Assembly Democrats were planning until less than an hour before Monday’s hearing.

“It was kind of a slight having an Assemblyman who wasn’t really part of the negotiations present the compromise,” Hammond said.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, who has been involved throughout the negotiations said they had been holding discussions over a couple of weeks and, “I thought we have been moving closer together.”

The Monday night hearing, he said, “was scheduled sort of out of the blue with no notice.

“I’m afraid it drove us further apart,” he said.

Two others involved in the negotiations said it was a bomb that could blow up the entire deal when 90 percent of the package had been agreed to.

A clear signal the plan is still alive, however, came when Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, moved the vote on the proposed Senate Bill 487 — the marijuana tax — to Thursday. That bill is caught up in the negotiations around the ESA program since it provides significant funding to the education budget.

The parts of the deal agreed upon included a sliding scale for the checks parents would receive based on their family income. For the lowest income families, the sliding scale would start at 185 percent of the federal poverty level — funding some accounts for the poorest families above the new $5,900 per pupil state amount to as much as $7,000. But the size of the checks would decrease as family income grew until the richest applicants would get less than $1,000 in state cash.

According to one Republican, the sticking points were how much money to put in it, whether that money would come from General Fund or tax credits and the growth rate of the vouchers program.

The Republicans and the governor wanted to start the program with General Fund money then move to tax credits in fiscal 2019. The Democrats wanted tax credits both years to fund the program, which was the plan presented by Watkins on Monday night.

That idea would give corporations tax credits against the Modified Business Tax to contribute to the ESA program.

Vouchers are the biggest issue facing the 2017 Legislature. Democrats said during the opening week of the session the vouchers program wouldn’t even get a hearing. Republicans responded saying no ESA’s, no budget. Sandoval, too, made the program a condition for ending the session.


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