Legislative leaders conduct lengthy closed-door meeting | NevadaAppeal.com

Legislative leaders conduct lengthy closed-door meeting

Nevada’s legislative leaders spent Wednesday behind closed doors in the Senate conference room trying to resolve differences over K-12 and higher education budgets.

The session, led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, began at 8:15 a.m. With only a short break in midmorning and a longer break for the Senate floor session and lunch, the session continued until 2:30 p.m.

The length of the meeting was taken as a hopeful sign by observers – much more hopeful than the attempted meeting on education spending last week, which lasted just 15 minutes.

“We made more progress than I expected,” said Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno. But he declined to give any specifics of what was discussed.

Those education budgets, which together make up half the state general fund budget, must be resolved before the rest of the state budget can be closed.

At the center of the debate is the Assembly’s desire to increase public-school funding. That includes expansion, if not statewide, of all-day kindergarten and expanded funding for vocational and technical education.

More as a strategic move than to fund those expensive proposals, the Assembly made several cuts to the university system budget last week. One of the most contentious was eliminating the funding for nonprofit group programs, including cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome research. The largest single cut was Gov. Jim Gibbons’ proposed Workforce Development Program at $7 million. The cut, which seemed to bring the strongest reaction, was to reduce the merit pool which provides professors performance raises.

Altogether, they took $25.7 million out of the university’s proposed budgets, a small fraction of the more than $100 million a year all-day kindergarten would cost.

But those cuts had their effect. Raggio was furious saying the Assembly “gutted the higher-education budget.”

Some of the debate still centers on those grants to nonprofit organizations, which are supported by major business figures including Larry Ruvo of Southern Wine and Spirits and developer Harvey Whittemore, and which Raggio wants restored. Assembly members including Ways and Means Chairman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, have objected, saying while those are good programs, the state’s needs must come first.

While the closed-door debate Wednesday centered on education, lawmakers admit their hopes for finding more money to put into education hang on proposed prison, parole and probation reforms. The Ways and Means Committee is looking at AB510 which would double good-time credits for inmates and, in an effort to get some of them out of prison now, make that doubling retroactive.

Assuming no reforms, the proposed budget for prisons is $547.1 million, an increase of 29 percent or $123.8 million over the current budget. Relieving overcrowding in the prisons would significantly reduce that increase, freeing up the cash for other uses.

Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, said further complicating the situation is the Education First amendment which requires education funding be approved before any other governmental functions are funded.

“We’ve never done a budget before under Education First so there’s just a lot of trial and error,” he said.

When Wednesday’s meeting broke up, Beers said staff was off to “run the numbers” on several proposals. When they receive those numbers today, lawmakers plan to head back behind closed doors to continue the negotiations.

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