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Democrats reject education spending cuts

CARSON CITY — Democratic lawmakers used the accounting equivalent of casino markers to raise the stakes in the state budget debate by about $650 million on Tuesday.

During a contentious joint meeting of Senate and Assembly money committees, Democrats in the majority rejected major K-12 education spending cuts proposed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval in his 2011-13 state budget but didn’t put money on the table to pay for the changes.

On party line votes, the Democratic majority rejected proposals to cut school employees’ pay by 5 percent, freeze merit pay increases for teachers and lift restrictions on school construction bond reserves so the money can be spent in the classroom.

The result was to widen the gap between Sandoval’s budget proposal, which doesn’t include tax or fee increases, and programs and diversions Democrats want to change to about
$650 million, a number that could increase in coming days as the Legislature rolls out higher education and social service proposals.

“Our goal is to decide what our priorities are and what we need to fund,” said Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, chairwoman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

But the Democrats’ decision to reject major pieces of Sandoval’s budget before unveiling any sort of tax plan to fund the priorities frustrated Republicans, who have stood behind the governor’s refusal to consider tax or fee increases.

“If they are going to ask us to come in and spend a bunch of money and not identify where they are getting it from, that is a joke,” said Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno.

Democrats haven’t identified where they would get money to pay for their plan, but they’ve held closed-door discussions with business leaders to discuss the possibility of extending the expiration date on about $650 million in taxes and adding a sales tax on services or franchise tax.

Proposals discussed could be worth up to $1.4 billion, sources familiar with the talks have said.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, are scheduled to give a presentation Thursday in Carson City on “potential solutions to Nevada’s budget shortfalls” but have not revealed specific proposals.

Democrats need a two-thirds majority to raise taxes, something they can’t achieve without Republican help. Republicans can’t approve Sandoval’s budget unless Democrats defect.

The debate Tuesday on Day 87 of the 120-day legislative session marked the first time Democrats openly discussed major spending ideas while Republicans stood behind Sandoval.

“Today is like the first day of session,” Republican political consultant Pete Ernaut said. “The first real day of session.”

At issue was general fund spending from the state’s distributive schools account, which stood at about $2.2 billion in Sandoval’s original budget.

At the start of the meeting, Sandoval Chief of Staff Heidi Gansert and Budget Director Andrew Clinger said new money from increased projections from sales and other tax revenues would add about
$241 million to the fund.

Sandoval’s plan for the money was to restore basic support, or per-pupil funding, by 94 percent, restore full-day kindergarten funding and replace money used to maintain smaller class sizes.

“There is no reason to lay off any teachers; all the programs should be reinstated,” Gansert said.

The legislators, voting on party lines, then rejected several Sandoval proposals, including the school worker pay cut that would have saved
$256.5 million, the merit pay freeze for teachers that would have saved
$142.6 million and a diversion of school construction bond reserves worth about $247 million.

“I don’t think teachers need to be the only ones to step up and take it one more time,” Horsford said. “We all need to step up and take it one more time.”

The committee did approve Sandoval’s plan to require teachers to contribute to their retirement plans, which saved about $200.9 million.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

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