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If legislative Republicans stand united, ESAs get funded

CARSON CITY — The legislative session has come down to a big game of chicken. At stake is the funding thousands of Nevada children need to improve their education.

As I told you about first last week, an unexpected twist has given legislative Republicans the opportunity they need to force Democrats to pass funding for a modified version of education savings accounts.

Democrats and Republicans were on the cusp of a compromise just a few days ago when Sen. Majority Leader Aaron Ford blew up negotiations by forcing a vote on a marijuana tax. Since tax increases need two-thirds approval, Senate Republicans had been withholding their votes until leaders reached an ESA deal.

After Ford’s move, Sandoval signaled that he was satisfied to sign the budget bills even if no Republicans voted for them, issue veto after veto and send lawmakers home.

A straightforward, if anticlimactic, end to the session looked near.

But in a correct, but unexpected change from 2015, the Legislative Counsel Bureau ruled that the Capital Improvement Projects budget contained a tax increase and needs two-thirds approval. Senate Republicans held to their promise not to vote for budget bills unless there was an ESA compromise, and CIP failed.

Then the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Sean Whaley broke the news that not passing the bill would create a $270 million hole in the state’s general fund and could hurt Nevada’s bond rating.

Hello, leverage. No longer can Sandoval and Democrat leaders alone just call it a draw and walk away. If a CIP budget doesn’t pass by Monday at midnight, Sandoval would have to call a special session, because the budget wouldn’t be balanced, as required by Nevada’s constitution.

If there was an ESA deal, the CIP budget would pass both houses unanimously. If there isn’t an ESA deal, at least two Republicans in the Senate and one in the Assembly must break the unified front and vote for the CIP budget — stabbing in the back both their colleagues and children desperate for educational options — for the session to end on time. Sandoval could could use the leverage of setting any special-session agenda to force an agreement on ESAs.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, looks to be the key swing vote. It’s a good sign that he’s already voted down the CIP budget, but the pressure is mounting. He played his cards close to the vest when questioned. “There are still a lot of ongoing discussions,” was all he’d tell me via text.

Sandoval’s spokeswoman Mari St. Martin was just as opaque.

“The governor is working with legislators to complete the state’s work on time,” she said in a text.

As an aside, if President Trump is looking for help on stopping leaks, Sandoval’s office has been tight-lipped all session. Not so helpful for a columnist looking for scoops, but an impressive show of discipline.

As the final hours approach, we’re waiting on the same question: Do Republicans stand together or hang separately?

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Nevada section each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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