CARSON CITY — State Sen. Pete Goicoechea represents a largely rural district that stretches more than 500 miles, from Jarbidge in Elko County up north to Primm in Clark County down south.
He’s worried that Elko’s Great Basin College, which educates his constituents, is going to be devastated if Nevada lawmakers approve a new higher education funding formula that would cut millions of dollars from rural community colleges and shift money to urban universities and colleges.
Goicoechea, R-Eureka, a rancher , won’t stand for that, he said last week as the 77th biennial session of the Nevada Legislature got under way.
“It’s no secret I won’t support the budget if it’s in there,” Goicoechea said of the community college cuts. “There will be some lines drawn in the sand.”
Goicoechea and other rural and northern lawmakers might resist; but the shifting of state revenue to Clark County is coming, thanks to the growing population and power of Southern Nevada lawmakers, who occupy 46 of the 63 seats in the Legislature.
The main questions are the pace of change, especially for K-12 and higher education funding, and whether the tug of war over resources blows up as an all-out rural North vs. urban South battle.
The Clark County Democratic leaders of the state Senate and Assembly both said they won’t let regional competition dictate policy and are intent on doing what is best for all parts of the state.
“We’re not going to make everybody happy, but we’re going to be as fair as we can,” said state Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas.
Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick said Nevada has three distinct regions — Clark County, Washoe County and rural Nevada — and “each portion of those regions has different needs.”
“I think we all want to do what’s best for the state,” said Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas. “And I think we’ve all realized that regionally we’ve got to do some things that are different.”
FILLING NEEDS IN THE SOUTH
Different for Clark County means getting more money to support more people and to deal with more problems, particularly in the education system. The College of Southern Nevada and Nevada State College are packed.
Kids in K-12 classes in Southern Nevada have greater English-language learning and special education needs, and more often come from impoverished families.
As a result, higher education officials proposed a new funding formula that would give more money to Southern Nevada colleges and universities while cutting funding for rural and northern institutions.
As an example, the College of Southern Nevada would get $11.3 million more for fiscal years 2014-15 while Great Basin College would lose $8.3 million.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval adopted the new formula for his proposed budget, but he restored some money to rural colleges to ease the impact, nearly $3.6 million in Great Basin’s case.
Goicoechea said that’s not good enough. He wants Great Basin to be “held harmless,” losing no money during the upcoming biennium as the new formula gradually kicks in.
Sandoval proposes $20 million to add all-day kindergarten at 46 more at-risk schools from the current 114.
The governor also budgeted $14 million to help preschool through third-grade students become proficient in English.
That’s a drop in the bucket for the Clark County School District, which has 50,000 English-language learners and 70 percent of Nevada’s 440,000 students.
SEN. DENIS WANTS MORE MONEY
However, Clark County could get a bigger boost if Denis has his way. He is pushing for universal all-day kindergarten plus more education money overall.
“When it comes to improving education, I want to do things now,” the state Senate majority leader said.
That could mean a new K-12 state education spending formula would be adopted in 2013 instead of 2015 as recommended by an interim legislative committee, said Carson City insiders who expect Southern Nevada Democrats to lead such an effort.
The proposed new weighted formula would give more per-student funding to the poor, to English-language learners and to others who cost more to educate.
For example, Clark County’s state and local funding would rise from $5,068 to $5,390 per student.
Other districts would see cuts, from $96 per student in Washoe County to $4,408 per student in Esmeralda County, which benefits under the current formula at $17,508 per student.
KIRKPATRICK: WON’T PLAY FAVORITES
Kirkpatrick said it’s too early to speculate on whether the new K-12 formula will be put on a fast track this session or whether lawmakers will ease the financial impact on rural colleges or the University of Nevada, Reno.
UNR stands to lose $2.9 million under the proposed formula. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas would gain $4.5 million under the governor’s proposal.
“I don’t think any of that has been decided yet,” Kirkpatrick said of the K-12 and higher education formulas. “I think that we have to be mindful of any impacts.”
Kirkpatrick, known as a no-nonsense leader, made it clear last week that she isn’t going to play favorites despite her own and Southern Nevada’s power.
Kirkpatrick represents North Las Vegas, but she rejected a bid by the city’s mayor, Shari Buck, to get more tax dollars from state coffers.
Buck appeared Thursday at a joint session of the Assembly Taxation Committee and Senate Committee on Revenue to ask for $25.8 million more a year in state tax distributions.
She said her growing city has been shortchanged by $20 million annually for the past six years.
But Kirkpatrick, who led an interim panel that studied the tax distribution system and recommended changes, said the new system is fair because local governments get state tax revenues based on factors such as assessed property values and the consumer price index.
“This formula was never based on population,” Kirkpatrick told Buck, scolding her for not supporting the new formula. “I have freakin’ said that for two years.”
SOUTH FINALLY GETS A CAUCUS
Still, Kirkpatrick hopes to consolidate Clark County’s political forces by forming a bipartisan Southern Nevada Caucus. Assemblyman Cresent Hardy, R-Mesquite, said Kirkpatrick asked him and state Sen. Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, to organize the caucus.
The effort grew out of a meeting Kirkpatrick had with Denis and Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, and leaders of local governments, including those in Clark County and Las Vegas.
Kirkpatrick said there have long been a Washoe caucus, a rural caucus and even a cowboy caucus at the Legislature.
“I know in Southern Nevada there are more of us, but we never have really had the time to sit down and discuss what we all want to work on together, bipartisan, and so I think that’s what we’re all trying to do,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s about us working together for the common good.”
Roberson said Southern Nevada has long been “shortchanged” by funding formulas, particularly for education, yet lawmakers must “remember that we’re one Nevada.”
“I don’t want to hurt other parts of the state,” Roberson said. “I don’t want to turn this into a sectional war. But we need to fix the inequities.”
Although Southern Nevada lawmakers have sheer numbers on their side, several powerful Northern Nevada legislators said they believe Clark County forces won’t run over the rest of the state.
“I think there is some sensitivity from the south to make sure they see their fair share,” said state Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, which decides money matters. “But I think my colleagues understand we have to look at what’s good for Nevada as a whole as well.”
Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, said he served on the higher education interim committee that recommended funding shifts toward Southern Nevada.
He said the reality is nearly three-quarters of the state’s 2.7 million population lives in Clark County.
“I think we found a fair formula,” Hickey said of higher education. “The demographics of the state have changed. We’re first and foremost state lawmakers, not just regional ones.”
Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal .com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.