Lawmakers’ closed meeting centers on education | NevadaAppeal.com

Lawmakers’ closed meeting centers on education

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Nevada Assembly Sergeant-at-Arms Terry Sullivan and other Legislative staff members sort copies of more than a dozen amendments before the Assembly floor session Thursday at the Legislature. Lawmakers continued jamming bills through Thursday, and while they remain hung up on key budget items, they expect to break the impasse this weekend.
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With the deadline for passage of nonexempt bills looming today, legislative leadership met behind closed doors again Thursday to try reach a budget compromise.

The division between Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats remained unresolved. However, they did reach agreement on the unclassified pay bill which sets salary increases for agency heads and professional positions such as lawyers who aren’t under the state’s classified system.

The disagreement over the education budget centers on a pot of $100 million put in the budget two years ago to fund grants to school districts for new and innovative programs. Senators are arguing that was one-shot money two years ago and isn’t part of the base public school budget. They want to use a large portion of that cash to fund research and other programs managed by nonprofit organizations around the state.

Assembly members say it is ongoing cash within the Distributive School Account and not available for other purposes. And they have objected to giving the money to nonprofit programs, which are outside of state control when the state has needs.

Using that money and the $60 million previously earmarked for retirement credits to keep teachers in at-risk schools, Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, wants to greatly expand funding for all-day kindergarten.

But Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, has repeatedly expressed concern the state can’t afford to sustain a large all-day kindergarten program because its spending will be up against the statutory cap by 2009. He also wants a big chunk of the pie to fund those nonprofit organizations, which Assembly members have derisively dubbed “rich guy charities” because of their proponents.

On that list for $10 million is the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute sponsored by Southern Wine and Spirits owner Lou Ruvo. Developer Harvey Whittemore is seeking $3.5 million for the Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease Research to study chronic fatigue syndrome. Longtime lobbyist and political consultant Sig Rogich is backing $12 million to expand programs at Opportunity Village, which provides services for the developmentally disabled.

When $2.5 million for Washoe ARC, $20 million for the Nevada Cancer Institute, $2.1 million for the Nevada Discovery Museum and $250,000 for the Washoe School District Education Foundation are added in, the total is more than $40 million.

Gov. Jim Gibbons included those projects as one-shot appropriations in his budget. Ways and Means Chairman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, said in earlier hearings all of those projects are worthy but the state must take care of state needs first when money is tight.

But those aren’t the only issues on the table. Also in the mix is the potential to cut $28 million out of Department of Corrections budgets by passing prison reforms. Both sides also have different ideas for using that cash – including a laundry list of budget additions the university system is lobbying for.

The so-called “core group” has met several times already but neither side has been willing to give very much. Their task is further complicated this session by the Education First requirements put into the state Constitution by Gibbons. That rule says that before any other budget can be approved, public schools must be funded.

To gain some leverage, both the Assembly and Senate are holding off final action on dozens of bills from the other house. That means huge general files and long floor sessions to pass legislation before midnight.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.