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School funding, workers furlough bills draw criticism

Updated July 11, 2020 - 8:32 pm

CARSON CITY — After asking for it to be included in the special legislative session, it now appears the Clark County School District wants nothing to do with a proposal that would allow it to sweep unspent funds from individual schools into the district’s own budget.

The controversial proposal, Assembly Bill 2, has drawn criticism from lawmakers, teachers, principals and education advocates alike, many of whom voiced those concerns during the Saturday afternoon hearing.

Many said they worry about taking carryover money from the coffers of those schools — many of which are also facing steep cuts that would slash roughly $100 million from a pair of programs that are aimed at helping low-achieving students make up ground.

Lawmakers also held hearings on bills that would implement the proposed 12 furlough days and merit pay freezes for Nevada’s roughly 18,000 state employees and one that would allow mining companies to prepay their taxes and shift highway fund money around as part of the plan to close the state’s $1.2 billion budget shortfall.

Members of the Assembly took turns lambasting the plan to sweep the school funds, questioning the equity of taking money from the schools who are already looking at losing programs from other cuts.

“I’m not buying the actual argument that was made,” Assemblywoman Dina Neal, D-North Las Vegas, said.

Clark County Education Association Executive Director John Vellardita, who presented the bill and an amendment that the union had proposed to lawmakers that would add more guardrails about which schools the district could take money from, was peppered with questions about the bill’s intent.

But Vellardita said repeatedly that he couldn’t talk about the original intent because it wasn’t the union that brought the idea forward.

“You’ll have to ask the superintendent,” Vellardita said.

Orphaned bill

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson paused the questions briefly to clarify to lawmakers that it was the Clark County School District that requested the bill before it was included in Gov. Steve Sisolak’s proclamation.

In a special session called by the governor in Nevada, all business conducted by the Legislature has to be related to the agenda set by the governor’s proclamation.

After the near-hourlong period of public testimony on the bill ended, it appeared that lawmakers would not hear from the district or Jara on the issue Saturday. But after the Assembly hearing had ended, Jara called in during the public comment period.

Jara — who appeared to back away from the proposal earlier in the week when he told lawmakers that he his intention was to keep the money at the school level — told lawmakers he wanted to set the record straight.

Jara said that he spoke with Frierson on Tuesday, the day before the session started, and told him “that I do not want this bill to move forward.” Jara began to lay out a timeline of those communications with Frierson and the governor’s office, but Frierson cut him off after two minutes — the amount of time allowed per speaker during the public testimony period.

Afterward, Frierson chided Jara for responding “in a public comment forum as opposed to taking responsibility” and said that Jara tried to pull the bill just hours before Sisolak’s proclamation went out Tuesday, when it was too late to change the document.

“I want to make it abundantly clear that AB2 was exclusively the request of CCSD to be placed on the agenda. And that request was withdrawn two hours before the actual proclamation was issued,” Frierson said.

“You don’t get to light a firecracker and run just before it goes off,” Frierson said.

Workers object to furloughs

The Assembly on Saturday began work on Assembly Bill 1, the furlough and pay-freeze bill. The furlough days would equate to a pay cut for workers of about 4.6 percent and would save about $52 million for the state.

The proposal was met with backlash from state workers, who noted that most had to endure similar furloughs and pay freezes for several years during the Great Recession and only recently had their pay unfrozen.

Cedric Williams, a chapter president for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Carson City, said that many of his fellow state workers are already struggling financially.

“At this point in time, I’m dealing with my brothers and sisters who cannot afford to put food on the table, clothes on the backs of their children or even send them to college. And now there’s more budget cuts being proposed once again,” Williams said.

Some lawmakers proposed having the state’s more highly paid workers take more than one furlough day a month, possibly as much as three.

“I just see a lot of programs that are disproportionately affecting low-income families. And if we can find some way to lighten it it would be extremely helpful for those folks (with) the lower incomes,” said Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, D-Las Vegas.

Assemblywoman Danielle Monroe-Moreno, D-North Las Vegas, echoed those comments, adding that the furloughs would have a “greater impact on the income coming into their home” and said they could have to use some of the services that the state is considering cutting.

Laura Freed, director of the Department of Administration, noted that roughly 10,800 state workers earn less than $60,000 per year, while 1,602 earn more than $90,000.

COVID-19 concerns

The Senate adjourned a little before 4 p.m. after about two hours of questions and public comment on Senate Bill 3, a revenue measure to temporarily accelerate tax collections on net proceeds of minerals mined in the state and move money from a dedicated highway fund to the state’s main budget account.

Before adjournment, Republican Minority Leader James Settelmeyer of Minden rose to thank the building’s cleaning crew for their extra work “to clean and disinfect this place” in the face of COVID-19, then he suggested the session “ought to take a break for a couple of days, allow staff to catch up.”

“There’s so much information we’ve asked of the executive department that has not been provided to us that our staff still needs in order to make the right decisions,” Settelmeyer said. “I think we ought to take break for several days in order to let this go through, let us all get retested, make sure we keep you safe.”

No one had further comment, and the session was gaveled to an end.

No votes were taken on any bills Saturday.

Capital Bureau staff writer Bill Dentzer contributed to this report.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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