Senate Democrats lead debate on proposed school funding cuts

CARSON CITY -- Senate Democrats led a rare Committee of the Whole meeting Wednesday to scrutinize school funding cuts included in Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval's proposed $5.8 billion general fund budget for 2011-13, but they stopped short of forcing members to take a vote on the plan.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, kicked off the meeting, which lasted more than five hours, by countering the widespread perception that the hearing was meant to embarrass or shame Republicans out of backing Sandoval's plan to balance the budget without raising taxes.

"Committee of the Whole is about serious business in the state of Nevada that must be resolved," said Horsford, who chastised critics who called a similar meeting Tuesday night in the Assembly a "farce" and a "dog and pony show."

Although Assembly Democrats, who have a 26-16 majority, forced a nonbinding party line vote on Sandoval's proposals Tuesday, there was no such vote in the Senate, where Democrats have an 11-10 majority and were missing Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, who was absent.

Democrats called the unusual hearing to move discussion of Sandoval's budget from smaller committee rooms to the Senate floor, saying a larger group review would allow members who aren't on education or money committees to hear school officials detail the impact of the proposed cuts.

Republicans grumbled about the tactic but played along, calling it an opportunity to brush up on the details of the budget plan. They also emphasized school district testimony about potential cuts to teacher pay and money used to maintain manageable class sizes.

"I think we are all just amazed by the severity of the problem," said Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon. "But there are 170,000 people out of work who are taking a 100 percent cut."

Under Sandoval's plan, K-12 spending statewide in 2011-13 would be about $2.4 billion, an 11 percent drop from the $2.7 billion spent in 2009-11, according to an analysis presented to the Legislature.

The cut is needed, according to Sandoval, to keep spending in line with state revenue declines caused by the recession, which has hit the gambling, real estate, construction and retail industries hard.

With nearly two-thirds of the 120-day legislative calendar passed, Democrats who want to raise taxes to bust Sandoval's cap and maintain higher spending are frustrated by Republican opposition. Republicans say they're upset Democrats don't seem interested in considering dramatic reforms to prevailing wage, collective bargaining, construction liability and education policy they say drive up the cost of business and government in Nevada.

The tension, which expressed itself with bickering on the Assembly floor Tuesday, was more subdued Wednesday in the Senate but did flare up.

At one point during testimony by Sandoval Chief of Staff Heidi Gansert and Budget Director Andrew Clinger, Horsford interjected his thoughts about moves the governor proposed to squeeze more money into education by using diversions and construction bond reserves.

"I don't know how fiscal conservatives can really defend some of these actions," Horsford said. "Those three examples I just cited create holes. They don't solve problems."

At another point, during testimony by Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones, Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, stood up to object to the notion that as many as 5,600 teachers and other school workers could lose their jobs if unions don't agree to pay and benefit cuts.

"I'm actually shocked a (union) would have 5,600 people fired rather than make a concession," Settelmeyer said.

Afterward, Gansert and Clinger called a media briefing of their own to respond to a budget document presented to the Senate that indicated Sandoval was calling for about $1.3 billion in cuts to K-12 spending.

They said the list included about $666.2 million that wasn't actually cut, $142.6 million in the form of a pay freeze for teachers, $221.5 million in a room tax diversion and $302.1 million by transferring construction bond debt reserves to operations.

"What they included on the list is a pay increase teachers are scheduled to get," Clinger said of the freeze. "To say that is a cut is not accurate."

Clinger said the true cuts to K-12 education, which he defined as a program receiving less money for 2011-13 than it did from 2009-11, total about $700 million, which includes a proposed 5 percent salary reduction for teachers and other workers and calls on employees to cover 25 percent of their retirement program contributions.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at or 702-477-3861.