Legislature stalls as vouchers negotiations blow up
Negotiations over the school vouchers program blew up Thursday.
The Democratic majority in the Legislature responded by passing the first three budget bills including K-12 education funding on a party line vote.
They can do that.
The key question is whether Gov. Brian Sandoval is willing to veto the entire state budget to save the so-called Educational Savings Accounts program.
If not, the ESAs are dead.
GOP members emerging from a closed door meeting with the governor refused to say what his answer to that question was.
He could, however, retaliate by vetoing a slew of Democratic bills that have been sent to his desk.
They passed the K-12 funding bill before Republicans returned to the Senate floor on a 12-0 vote. With the GOP members back in their chairs, they then passed the Authorizations Bill that contains multi-billions worth of federal health and human services funding, passing it 12-9.
But the Capital Improvement Projects bill died on a 12-9 party line vote because it contained an increase in bond debt, an effective tax increase that requires a two-thirds majority of at least 14 senators.
In a joint statement, Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, charged that during extensive negotiations over the ESAs, Republicans “undermined these discussions by moving the goalposts and refusing to meet us halfway.”
They said that left them no choice but to move forward with the budget bills.
According to both sides, the sticking points were the total amount of funding for the vouchers program, the sliding scale designed to “means test” the amount families could get in state money and the maximum rate the program would be allowed to grow each year.
It was made clear the negotiations were dead when Ford called for a vote on Senate Bill 487, the bill imposing $60 million in taxes on marijuana sales to help fund the K-12 education budget. Without a deal on the vouchers, that bill died on a party line vote 12-9 with Republicans opposed.
Ford then moved for an amendment to the Education Funding bill to cut its expenditures by that amount, $60 million.
But the Senate never actually approved that amendment instead using the $60 million in the budget for ESAs to fill the gap in the Distributive School Account.
After the vote on the marijuana tax, Republicans called for a recess and walked off the floor, sending Assembly Minority Leader Paul Anderson of Las Vegas, Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson of Las Vegas and Ben Kieckhefer of Reno to Sandoval’s office.
Democrats at both ends of the building served notice they intend to process the budget bills as soon as possible today and send them to Sandoval’s desk.
The open question is whether Sandoval would veto the budget bills, leading toward a shutdown of state government.
If that situation occurs and can’t be resolved by mid summer, the shutdown would also make it impossible for public schools to prepare for fall classes, including signing contracts with teachers.