CARSON CITY — The jury is still out on whether a long-standing fight over state funding equity between Northern Nevada and Southern Nevada is over or just beginning in earnest.
But there are recent signs that a funding shift is occurring in several important areas, from public and higher education to the allocation of scarce road dollars.
And all of this comes as Reno-raised Brian Sandoval occupies the governor’s office in the state Capitol.
Sandoval has a strong favorability rating with Nevada voters and has weathered two legislative sessions with little serious controversy. He is running for a second term and so far has no major Democratic challenger.
The most recent evidence of this shift came at an October meeting of the Department of Transportation Board of Directors when it was disclosed that Clark County will get $344 million in federal, state and local road funding this fiscal year, or nearly 66 percent of the state’s total.
The percentage is still below Clark County’s 73 percent of the state’s population but is a big improvement over 2013 when it received 52 percent.
No image better reflects the funding debate, and Las Vegans’ sense of deprivation, than the $550 million Interstate 580 project south of Reno. Construction of the 8.5-mile freeway extension, years in the making, came as Las Vegas residents continued to suffer with serious and ongoing traffic congestion.
Roberson: NO EQUITY YET
While the funding changes are positive, there is still a lot of work to be done, said Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas.
“This is progress,” he said in an email response. “However, any suggestion that there is parity or equity for Southern Nevada when it comes to education and transportation funding is just not true.
“This interim, I and other Southern Nevada leaders will be working on a new K-12 funding formula to bring more education funding to Southern Nevada,” Roberson said. “After all, what’s good for Southern Nevada is good for the state of Nevada.”
Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said a new K-12 funding formula is a priority for him as well this interim. The current formula does not account for the needs of many Clark County students who live in economically challenged areas, he said.
Special education and English Language Learners need to be part of the funding formula, Denis said. It costs more money to provide services to this population, he said.
“We all know it costs more money to do these things,” Denis said. “We need to help these kids get the education they deserve.”
The level of distrust and outright dislike among some residents of the two regions gained attention this past week when a video of Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, R-Gardnerville, surfaced.
While his comments about how he would vote for slavery if his constituents wanted him to do so got the most traction in the media, he also said in the August comments that “Las Vegas wants everything and they don’t care about the rules. They want our mining money and they want more of it, and they want to be able to take money.”
This comment prompted the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce to comment that it was disturbed by Wheeler’s “disdain for the people of Southern Nevada, who make up nearly 75 percent of the state and who contribute greatly to its economy, its accomplishments and community spirit. These remarks, too, bring into question Mr. Wheeler’s respect for his fellow citizens and human beings.”
Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, said via an email that the long-simmering road funding debate is evidence that Nevada’s governors are acting with statewide interests in mind.
The Northern Nevada freeway project was developed under Las Vegas-based Govs. Bob Miller, a Democrat, and Kenny Guinn, a Republican, Hickey said. Now Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, is serving as governor as more road money heads south, Hickey said.
“Those funding decisions would indicate that recent Nevada governors have acted with statewide, not regional interests, in mind,” he said.
Besides the road funding, the 2013 legislative session saw another fundamental change in the funding for higher education that is benefiting the south.
Lawmakers approved a new funding formula that shifted money to the more populated campuses in Southern Nevada. The shift has caused major budget woes for two smaller colleges, Western Nevada in Carson City and Great Basin in Elko.
Former state Sen. John Lee got the ball rolling on higher education funding equity in 2011 with a bill to bring more revenue to the College of Southern Nevada. He said his proposal brought long-simmering equity issues to the surface.
“I think it was the catalyst for the discussion that has taken place since then,” said Lee, a Democrat who is now mayor of North Las Vegas. “The north always had good representation.
“We don’t wake up every day wanting to harm the north by any means. But we also have such challenges, we have to look at the resources we need for our region.”
HIGHER ED FORMULA CHANGED
Lee’s bill ended up as a study, but that study did result in the bill changing the funding formula in 2013.
It has made a substantial difference for some of the colleges. The College of Southern Nevada, the largest college in the state, was the big winner, seeing nearly $5.2 million in more revenue this year compared to 2013. Nevada State College saw $4.5 million more. Western Nevada College lost $3.7 million, and Great Basin College lost nearly $5.2 million.
Lee said he has a new goal for Southern Nevada in its quest for equity: its own medical school. He said the region needs its own school, a priority announced last month by UNLV President Neal Smatresk.
While a proposed new funding formula for public education was not adopted by the 2013 Legislature, scarce new state revenue was directed at one of the priorities recommended in that review: $50 million for English Language Learners. Much of this money will head to the Clark County School District where the vast majority of ELL students reside.
Other developments are pushing more state funding south, including a mental health crisis in Las Vegas.
Concerns over the treatment of the mentally ill has prompted Sandoval and state lawmakers to approve funding to add more beds in Las Vegas to treat the population, including, for the first time, beds for mentally ill criminal offenders. The only such facility now is in Sparks.
OUTDATED GOVERNANCE AT ISSUE
David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said he recognizes the improvement in north-south equity in recent years but that the issue is far from settled.
But rather than focus on the money, Damore said, state decision-makers need to look at Nevada’s antiquated governance structure. For example, Nevada is the only state where the governor sits on the Transportation Board. And Nevada is one of only two states that controls its community colleges entirely at the state level.
Nevada does not grant home rule to cities and counties, yet the Legislature meets only every other year, a frustrating position for local governments, Damore said.
If changes were made to make the state more modern and efficient, it would go a long way to resolving the equity issues, he said.
All of these developments have come in Sandoval’s first term. Sandoval is chairman of the Transportation Board. He endorsed the new higher education funding formula and proposed the ELL funding in his budget.
In response to questions about these developments, Sandoval spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said: “Gov. Sandoval represents the entire state and, to him, it’s about the state thriving, Nevadans working, improving education, and ensuring state assistance is provided where it’s needed.”
Kinner also noted that the downturn in the economy impacted many services provided by the state. “As the economy improves, so will funding,” she said.
SANDOVAL SEEKS RE-ELECTION
The funding shift also comes as Sandoval prepares to run for a second term as governor. Political oddsmakers put Sandoval as nearly a shoe-in for re-election. The changes will likely help his campaign in Las Vegas, where the perception continues, at least for some, that Sandoval does not spend enough time or attention on the populous region.
Kinner, though, said the governor spends two days a week in Las Vegas.
Damore said the funding for Southern Nevada priorities won’t hurt him in the north, because the only alternative for voters will be to pick the Democrat in the race. Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak is considering a run.
A reason for the funding shift is at least partly due to the leadership shift in the Nevada Senate and Assembly over the past several years to Southern Nevada lawmakers. Most notably, change occurred in the Senate where the late Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, held sway as majority leader for 16 years until 2009. In the Assembly, former Speaker Joe Dini, D-Yerington, ran the house for many years.
Damore said another reason for the change is term limits. New lawmakers are not beholden to longtime lobbyists. Nor do they believe they have to do things the way they have been done in the past, he said.
Hickey, now the lone northerner in legislative leadership, said Raggio and Dini have been praised for their statesmanship and concern for the state as a whole.
“Current state lawmakers, especially those of us in leadership, would do well to follow their example and act as statewide legislators, not regional partisans,” Hickey said.
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at email@example.com or 775-687-3900. Follow him on Twitter @seanw801.