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Thorny issue of ESA funding looms as clock ticks for Nevada Legislature

CARSON CITY — Let the endgame begin at the Nevada Legislature.

With just over two weeks to go, deals need to be made between Republicans and Democrats to end the session on time June 5.

Several thorny issues remain as the clock ticks in Week 16 of the 2017 session.

The biggest issue is funding for Education Savings Accounts. Senate Bill 506 would allocate $60 million to the program to provide parents with $5,200 to help pay for private school for their children.

The bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee.

Gov. Brian Sandoval allocated the money for the controversial program, which was approved by lawmakers in 2015. However, a Supreme Court ruling nullified the funding mechanism, and ESAs have been in limbo ever since.

Republicans support the program, but Democrats are opposed.

Supporters say it would allow for school choice. Opponents call it a voucher program and say the proposed funding would be better spent in the public education budget.

Senate Finance Chairwoman Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, said the bill will get a hearing, but no date has been set.

Republicans, who are in the minority in both the Senate and the Assembly, have said they will vote against the final budget bills if ESAs are not funded. Democrats have enough votes to pass the budget without GOP support, but if Sandoval vetoes the budget over the issue, they do not have the two-thirds majority required to override a veto.

Such an action would force lawmakers into a special session.

Sandoval has said only that he continues to work on a resolution to the issue.

Marijuana tax

The other major issue is Sandoval’s proposal for a 10 percent retail tax on the sale of recreational marijuana. The new tax requires a two-thirds vote in both the Assembly and the Senate.

Failure to approve the tax would create a $63 million hole in the public schools budget. Senate Bill 508, which would implement the tax, is awaiting a hearing in Senate Finance.

Lawmakers have made major progress in finalizing Gov. Sandoval’s proposed two-year, $8.2 billion general fund budget that will begin July 1. Higher education funding, much of the public education budget, Medicaid, corrections and capital projects have been finalized by lawmaker subcommittees.

The budgets and the ESA funding and marijuana tax issues need to be finalized in the next few days, so the budget bills enacting the spending plan can be drafted in time to meet the adjournment deadline.

Any budget differences between the Senate and the Assembly must be resolved by Thursday. The budget measures need to be introduced by May 31, the 115th day of the 120-day session.

Backroom negotiations and final votes on bills in the Senate and the Assembly will be the main features of the session this week.

Contact Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @seanw801 on Twitter.

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