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School bond rollover bill debated in Assembly

CARSON CITY — A controversial bill that would extend a bond rollover program to address pressing school construction needs in Clark County ran into tough questioning Thursday in an Assembly committee.

Senate Bill 119, which would allow the rollover for 10 years without requiring voter approval, would also exempt school construction projects from the state prevailing wage law. The rollover would not result in a tax increase.

It was the focus of a more than three-hour hearing in the Assembly Government Affairs Committee after passing the Senate earlier this month on a party-line vote with Republicans in favor.

Both elements of the bill raised concerns among members of the committee, which took no immediate action on the measure.

The prevailing wage exemption is opposed by Democrats, while some lawmakers in both parties are concerned about approving the rollover without requiring voter approval. Voters in Clark County rejected a school bond measure in 2012.

The rollover provisions would apply statewide but Clark County would see the most benefit in the short term. Over the 10-year life of the rollover the district would be able to use $3.5 billion in bonding capacity for schools. The bonding capacity would be created as older bonds are retired and property values increase.

The bill only needs a simple majority vote to pass.

If Democrats decide to oppose the bill because of the prevailing wage issue, supporters will need 22 of the 25 Assembly Republicans to vote in favor and send the bill to Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Bill co-sponsor Sen. Becky Harris, R-Las Vegas, told the panel that the Clark County School District could build seven new schools right away and have them open for the fall of 2017 if the bill is signed into law by March. Another five new schools could be built for the following year, with 43 more schools receiving additions and two others replaced. Another three schools would be renovated.

But Assemblyman John Moore, R-Las Vegas, a member of the committee, asked what guarantees were in place to ensure the first seven schools would open on time.

Jim McIntosh, chief financial officer for the Clark County School District, said student enrollment has grown by 10,000 students in the past three years without a new school being built. The district could use 32 new elementary schools today, he said.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, another co-sponsor of the bill, testified in favor of the prevailing wage exemption, saying it would make taxpayer money go further and result in more schools being built.

There is debate about how much would be saved on the school projects without requiring the prevailing wage.

But Kieckhefer said that even if it is only 5 percent, the exemption would mean $175 million more in construction projects in Clark County alone.

Nevada’s prevailing wage law requires contractors who win publicly financed construction projects to pay workers according to a wage schedule established by the state’s labor commissioner. The original purpose of the law was to require local wage rates to be paid on public projects so that out-of-state competitors could not come in and undercut the local labor pool.

Assemblywoman Amber Joiner, D-Reno, said in other states where the prevailing wage has been eliminated, workers come in from other states and undercut local bidders. Joiner said she could not support a bill that would result in Nevada workers losing jobs or getting a pay cut.

Even U.S. Sen. Harry Reid weighed in on the measure, saying state lawmakers should be working to create good-paying jobs that go to Nevada residents.

“The legislation before the Republican Nevada Legislature does neither,” he said in a statement. “What good does it do to our state’s recovery to have construction jobs going to residents of other states?”

Assemblyman Edgar Flores, D-Las Vegas, said that if the concern is an urgent need for schools, then the bill should be amended so that the prevailing wage issue could be addressed separately.

Including the exemption only pits children against their working parents, he said.

But Senate Republicans said the rollover portion of the bill would not have won support without the prevailing wage exemption.

Contact Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900. Find him on Twitter: @seanw801.

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