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Surprise hearing clouds fate of ESAs

CARSON CITY

Republican leaders left a Monday morning negotiation session optimistic about a compromise on Education Savings Accounts.

While the parties had not reached complete agreement, there was momentum for a deal. The negotiators agreed to keep the details of the private meeting to themselves and talk again, potentially on Monday afternoon.

Just hours later, Democrats dropped a bombshell by giving three hours’ notice for a joint meeting of Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means on Senate Bill 506.

Then another bombshell. Democrats had an amendment to the bill to fund ESAs, and neither Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office nor Republican lawmakers knew what it contained.

The amendment proposed significant changes, some of which had been part of the negotiations, but some of which were new. This included having the funding come from tax credits, similar to Opportunity Scholarships passed in 2015. Under this proposal, ESAs would not get taxpayer funding directly, but businesses donating to scholarship-granting organizations would get tax credit.

It’s a significant trade-off, as there may not be time to secure full funding before the start of the 2017 school year. Democrats also want to cut the proposed amount from $60 million to $30 million.

The amendment would eliminate universal eligibility and instead create a sliding scale that would give poorer families more than the $5,900 cap established in SB506. For families earning 10 times the poverty line, ESAs would offer $600 a student. Families earning more would be ineligible.

Democrats also suggested preventing funds from flowing to any school open less than one year. That would prevent new private schools from opening up to serve the poorer families Democrats frequently complain don’t have access to neighborhood private schools.

The amendment also said that a participating school’s board must adopt “non-discriminatory language in bylaws.” Depending on how it’s written, that provision could exclude every traditionally religious school in Nevada.

For all the hubbub, GOP insiders expect the most tangible result from the hearing to be that Sandoval’s veto pen will get a workout.

The staff of Assembly Ways and Means said the education budget still includes funding from the marijuana tax, which Republicans will not pass without an agreement on ESAs.

After a hearing, described with great understatement by one GOP lawmaker as being in in “poor taste,” that’s the key sign on if lawmakers will or won’t reach an ESA compromise.

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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