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Gov. Steve Sisolak confident payroll tax extension on solid ground

Updated June 4, 2019 - 10:13 pm

CARSON CITY — Gov. Steve Sisolak said Tuesday he was confident a tax extension to fund education approved by the Legislature on the final day of the session Monday would withstand any legal challenge from Republican lawmakers or other opponents.

Meeting with reporters for 30 minutes to take questions and give his assessment, the Democratic governor cited progress on issues he campaigned on — especially education and health care — saying the Democrat-controlled Legislature and executive branch had shepherded “historic measures into law that will make sure that the economic recovery that we’re experiencing is going to reach every single kitchen table, every single family.”

“I firmly believe that the Nevada you saw on February 4 is not the Nevada that you see on June 4,” he said, referring to the start and end dates of the Legislature’s 120-day session. “And I think it’s a much better Nevada.”

He demurred on discussing specific bills he has not yet signed. As of Monday, Sisolak had signed about 375 bills and had 150 more awaiting his attention.

The potential legal challenge stems from Monday’s passage of the tax extension without the two-thirds legislative majority normally required for legislation raising taxes. The governor in January proposed extending the state’s modified business tax — a payroll tax — at its current rate rather than allow it to follow a scheduled decline at the start of the new fiscal year in July.

Sisolak and Democrats maintained that the extension was not an actual tax increase or new tax that would have required the supermajority vote. Republicans disagreed, hoping to hold onto leverage in the Senate on spending policy. (Democrats held a 13-8 majority in the Senate, one vote shy of two-thirds.) But lawyers in Legislative Counsel Bureau issued an opinion last month that sided with Democrats.

The issue came to head in the Senate Monday in a flurry of votes on the tax bill extension. The money raised by the tax, projected at $98 million over two years, was eventually put toward school safety, teacher raises, and to prop up an existing private school voucher program whose funding was frozen at its current level.

“We’ve got legal opinion from LCB that, you know, a simple majority is what’s needed,” Sisolak said Tuesday. “I’ve been in government for 20 some-odd years, and if you don’t trust your attorneys, you’ve got a problem. So I’m confident that the attorneys gave us a good opinion. We’ll move forward from there.”

He would not speculate on how a legal challenge might affect funded programs, including teacher raises, but said teachers “should feel very secure that they’re getting their pay increase. That was one of our No. 1 priorities.”

Some of the initiatives the governor cited:

■ An end to surprise emergency room billing and codified protections for pre-existing medical conditions in state law.

■ Legislation to clean-up old abortion laws and simplify informed consent procedures.

■ More Medicaid funding for family planning.

Pricing transparency for asthma drugs.

■ An increase in the state minimum wage.

■ Guaranteed paid leave for workers.

Expanded voting access.

Collective bargaining for state workers — albeit with the governor’s approval.

Cannabis industry regulation.

■ A study of the state health care system.

■ An office directly under the governor to help immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

■ $5 million to promote a complete census count in 2020.

Most of all, the governor touted what lawmakers had accomplished for education, which includes the first update to how schools are funded in Nevada in more than 50 years.

“We’re going to deliver something that was really important to me personally,” he said. “It doesn’t get us all the way where we need to go. But it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

He would not offer his opinion on specific bills he has not acted on, including wide-ranging measures dealing with criminal justice and public records access reform and a gun-control bill that bans bump stocks and authorizes confiscation of weapons from people at risk of harming themselves or others, though he committed to signing the gun bill.

“Through this whole session I never committed to signing anything until it got here,” he said. “This is my first session. You get a bill and there a first, second, third, fourth, fifth reprint — amendments get attached and taken off.”

Contact Bill Dentzer at bdentzer@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-0661. Follow @DentzerNews on Twitter.

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