Nevada Legislature finally gets to work on major budget bills

A sure sign that the Nevada Legislature is on track to adjourn by a Monday deadline emerged Thursday when some of the half dozen budget bills needed to fund the operation of state government for the two years beginning July 1 were introduced.

The appropriations, authorizations and public school budget bills implementing the $6.5 billion general fund spending plan are coming from the Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means committees over the next couple of days.

The main budget bill, the appropriations act, has been introduced in the Assembly as Assembly Bill 507. A bill outlining the very modest $103 million capital improvement program for the next two years, Assembly Bill 505, has also been introduced.

Still awaiting introduction are bills funding public education and authorizing agencies to spend pass-through funding from the federal government and other sources.

Nevada’s new general fund budget will be about $200 million more than the current spending plan, and passage is all but guaranteed after the detailed review of the spending plan by lawmakers over the past 116 days.

The mostly status quo budget does include some new spending, which Gov. Brian Sandoval opted to put primarily into mental health and public education.

Sandoval found $13 million in new funding for mental health programs, including the addition of 10 beds at the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas, where a political firestorm has erupted over the transfer of patients out-of-state, including at least a couple of cases of alleged patient dumping.

Public education is getting the biggest piece of the new money pie, with about $130 million in spending on new programs.

They include $50 million for English Language Learners, the first ever such appropriation by a Nevada governor, and nearly $40 million for an expansion of all-day kindergarten to 201 schools from the current 128 schools.

Per pupil spending will rise from $5,374 now to $5,590 in the first year of the budget and to $5,676 in the second year.

The budget also includes an expansion of the Medicaid program to newly eligible Nevadans under the federal health care law. About 78,000 Nevadans are expected to be added to the program beginning Jan. 1, 2014.

Sandoval opposed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and even joined in a multi-state legal challenge, but opted to expand Medicaid when the law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Federal funding will pay for 100 percent of the Medicaid expansion for the first three calendar years beginning in 2014, with the state required to pick up a percentage of the cost starting in 2017.

The budget also includes a new formula for funding higher education that will send more funding to Southern Nevada.

Under the new formula funding will be based on how many class credits students complete. Additionally, upper level courses will be given more weight in the funding balance because they cost more to offer.

The shift will mean about $13 million going to Southern Nevada schools from the north.

The budget also includes $4 million to allow Nevada to compete with other states for a research center on the use of drones, $1 million less than requested by Sandoval. If successful, the drone project could be worth $2.5 billion to Nevada’s economy.

“This is not thick enough,” said Finance Committee Chairwoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, on the size of the appropriations bill draft. “It does not look like four months’ worth of work.”

Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said he would not support the budget bill on the Senate floor unless more money is added to rural community colleges

“It doesn’t help my community colleges enough,” he said. “It is still over a 10 percent cut for them.”

While Sandoval made it clear early on that he would not consider new taxes to fund public education and other priorities sought by Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature, he did decide to continue a package of taxes into the new budget that would expire on June 30 otherwise.

The tax extensions, several of which are contained in Senate Bill 475, were still awaiting action in the money committees.

This nearly $1.1 billion in revenue, coming in part from a higher payroll tax on large businesses and a 0.35 percent point increase in the state sales tax, will ensure that there would be no further cuts to public education and other important state programs.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at or 775-687-3900. Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at or 775-687-3901.