The Nevada Supreme Court building Monday, March 4, 2019.
Photo: David Calvert / The Nevada Independent
LAS VEGAS — Nevada Supreme Court justices asked pointed questions Thursday about a fast-track appeal of a school vouchers ballot measure that a state court judge rejected for using what he characterized as "sleight of hand" to hide what he called the "enormous" effect it would have on the state budget.
Attorney Jason Guinasso, representing the initiative proponent, Education Freedom PAC, conceded at the outset that even if the court gives the go-ahead to resume collecting signatures, there may not be time left to gather the almost 141,000 names needed to qualify for the November ballot.
The signature deadline is June 29.
"We're here asking for a chance," Guinasso told the court, which heard the case with justices in Carson City and Las Vegas. They made no immediate ruling.
Tough questions came all seven justices focusing on whether the proposed constitutional amendment backed by the advocacy group Power2Parent would violate state law against so-called "unfunded mandates" — creating a law and requiring the state Legislature to spend money to enact it.
"Isn't that precisely the nature of your petition?" Justice James Hardesty asked Guinasso. "It looks to me like this is an amendment of the constitution that directs the Legislature to either create or amend statutes that fund this. And by your own admission, possibly result in a reduction of services or an increase in taxes without providing a funding mechanism for the tax."
Guinasso, who earlier told Justice Douglas Herndon that "funding would follow the student," responded to Hardesty that the question "should be taken up at a later date."
Attorney Bradley Schrager, representing initiative opponents headed by the philanthropic Rogers Foundation, pointed to Carson City District Court Senior Judge Charles McGee's scathing ruling of April 11 invalidating the written summary of the measure, called the "description of effect," as misleading to the public.
The foundation backs a policy organization called Educate Nevada Now, and foundation Chairwoman Beverly Rogers and CEO Rory Reid argue that Nevada schools are chronically underfunded.
Schrager said the initiative is not clear about the amount of per-pupil spending that could be funneled away from public school programs.
It could amount to the $10,000 average per year the state spends per child, Schrager said, or the approximately $7,000 "statewide base per pupil."
The state Legislature research division reports there were 493,000 public school students in Nevada in 2019. So either way, Schrager said, the amount at stake could be billions of dollars.
Nevada's overall general fund budget is currently about $4.6 billion.
Justice Elissa Cadish returned to the funding issue at the end of the court's nearly 35 minutes of oral arguments, asking Guinasso if the petition misleads signers by underselling the possible budgetary effect.
"Is that an accurate description of effect if it says ... it could require a tax increase or reduced services when, in fact, it specifically requires pulling money from the public school account and giving it to individual parents to go elsewhere?" she asked.
"Respectfully, no," Guinasso responded. "The description of effect puts the public on notice (about) ... what we're proposing, and then how that proposal might have an effect."