CARSON CITY — The proposed budget to fund school safety initiatives throughout Nevada was cut in half Thursday as lawmakers at the Legislature worked to close the state’s education budgets.
The budget originally proposed by Gov. Steve Sisolak dedicated $54 million to a new school safety account that was to be funded by the 10 percent retail tax levied on all recreational marijuana sales.
On Thursday, the joint Senate and Assembly money committee cut the funding to those programs by more than $30 million. The budgets are not yet finalized, and lawmakers could find money to restore them before the session ends.
The move comes after Sisolak earlier in the week introduced a bill that would direct all revenue from the retail marijuana tax — about $120 million over the next two years — to public schools as a way to increase per-pupil funding and pay for raises for teachers that Sisolak promised in his State of the State address.
“They gutted it,” Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, said after the meeting. “I just can’t understand the logic of doing that.”
“Creating a safe environment for all of our children when they go to school I think should be a top priority for us. And the idea that they just backed out $30 million that was dedicated to doing that is unfathomable to me,” he added.
The biggest cut from the proposed budget came out of the funds for infrastructure safety improvements, like new locks, security doors and cameras that were identified as areas of need through former Gov. Brian Sandoval’s school safety task force. That body was created in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida in 2018 that left 17 people, including 14 students, dead.
Sen. Keith Pickard, R-Henderson, also criticized the cut, In a tweet, Pickard compared the cuts to school safety initiatives to Democrats passing the background check initiative earlier in the session.
“They spend two days ramming a gun control bill down Nevada’s throat on the claim it makes schools safer then they rob the account?” Pickard said in the tweet.
And now today they swept $30.5 Million from school safety! How is that a plan to fund it? They spend 2 days ramming a gun control bill down Nevada’s throat on the claim it makes schools safer then they rob the account? #savethemillennium #safeschools #nvleg
— Keith Pickard (@Pickard4Nevada) May 16, 2019
Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, shot back at those comments.
“Let me be clear, we have not cut funding for school safety,” Cannizzaro said in a statement. “The reality is, we are funding school safety at a higher level than it was funded in last session’s budget.”
Cannizzaro also lambasted Republicans, saying they have been unwilling to discuss the Democrats’ proposal to extend the modified business tax in an effort to bolster education funding.
“If our Republican colleagues are truly concerned with funding education and school safety, then the impetus is on them to come forward and discuss extending the MBT, which so far, not one of them has been willing to do,” she said. “We would love to get to a place where we could add even more enhancements to school safety, and if the Republicans share that goal, they should come in and have a discussion about how to achieve that instead of trying to play political games with our students’ well being.”
Sisolak’s proposed budget called for $25 million for those projects over the next two years, but the finance committee voted to cut that down to $7.5 million.
Other money available
Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said following the meeting the cuts to the infrastructure funds came after discussion with the urban school districts in Clark and Washoe, which she said had indicated that they had ability to pay for those projects through their own capital improvement funds
The remaining funds — about $7.5 million — would be used by the rural school districts who don’t have that ability, Woodhouse added.
Woodhouse said she believes the local school districts will follow through with those improvements even without the state dollars.
“They want to make sure that their schools are safe, their teachers, their students are safe,” she said. “And they want parents to feel and to know that they’ve done everything they can to keep children safe.”
The governor’s spokeswoman, Helen Kalla, said that Sisolak “will spend the remainder of the session working with legislative leadership on their shared priorities: improving our education system, keeping our schools and communities safe, and expanding opportunities for all Nevadans.”
Upping per-pupil funding
The committee also approved redirecting the marijuana tax money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to the state’s public education funding account, called the Distributive Schools Account.
The move adds about $120 million to the account over the next two years, which the legislative staff estimates will increase the state’s per-pupil funding by $120 and $124 per student in the next two fiscal years, respectively.
The 10 percent retail marijuana tax was originally proposed to help fill an estimated $33 million shortfall in funding for the state’s Millennium Scholarship account.
Woodhouse said that lawmakers are committed to ensure that the scholarship, which is utilized by thousands of college students in Nevada each year, is fully funded going forward.
But Woodhouse said they haven’t quite figured out where that money will come from.
“We haven’t landed on anything yet,” she said. “We’re looking for it, and we’re going to find it.”