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Education top of mind as 82nd legislative session begins

Updated February 6, 2023 - 10:17 am

RENO — New governor. New leadership. New members. New budget opportunities. And 120 days to get it all done.

The 82nd session of the Nevada Legislature begins on Monday, and with it comes a host of new players and dynamics that will shape the state for years to come.

The governor is new, for one. Gov. Joe Lombardo, a Republican, is the former Clark County sheriff and has hardly any legislative experience. His chief of staff, Ben Kieckhefer, however, is a former state senator who chaired the Senate Finance Committee in 2015 and most recently served on the state Gaming Commission.

There’s new leadership in the Legislature too. Assemblyman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, who was first elected in 2017, will serve as speaker, leading the chamber with a Democratic supermajority. In the Senate, where Democrats are one vote short from a supermajority, Republican Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert, R-Reno, will serve as minority leader after taking the reins from termed-out Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden. In the Assembly, Assemblyman Philip “P.K.” O’Neill, R-Carson City, will lead the Republican minority for the first time.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, in fact, is the only returning lawmaker with experience leading a caucus. She took over as Democratic leader during the 2019 session.

And the makeup of their caucuses has changed too. In the Assembly, there are 14 new lawmakers, seven from each party. There are seven new senators, but five previously served in the Assembly.

On top of all that, the state is flush with cash. The Economic Forum, a nonpartisan group in charge of forecasting the state’s revenue for its two-year budget, projected the state would have $11.4 billion in tax revenue.

In his State of the State address in mid-January, Lombardo proposed the largest two-year general fund budget in state history, at $11 billion.

Education

As part of that budget, he proposed a $2 billion increase in funding for K-12 education over the next biennium in a move he said “introduces more student and parental choices than any budget in Nevada history.”

But exactly how those dollars will go to benefit education in the state depends greatly on how lawmakers allocate money to the state’s education system.

Lombardo made school choice a feature of his campaign and vowed to create the Office of School Choice within the Department of Education and increase funding for Opportunity Scholarships during his State of the State address.

During the address, Lombardo said he looked forward to working with Gansert on expanding school choice, a priority she later echoed in an interview with the Review-Journal.

“We want to make sure that students can attend whatever school best fits their needs,” Gansert said. “So that’s a priority, making sure a student has the greatest opportunity to get an education and we think choice is part of that.”

That includes increasing funding for Opportunity Scholarships, which help cover tuition for private schools. “We think that’s part of the part of the solution to make sure that we have the best outcomes for students,” she said.

O’Neill agreed school choice could increase good outcomes for students.

“Parental choice is get parents involved with their child,” he said. “Help the child and they make decisions about where Johnny or Jane should go to school.”

But O’Neill stressed the importance of “accountability” for how those dollars are spent on education, echoing remarks made by the governor during his State of the State address.

Both Democratic leaders said public education is a high priority for them.

Cannizzaro said her caucus has several bills in the works to address issues in the state’s public education system. Some of those bills look to address teacher pay and hiring more people to teach. Yeager agreed that education funding is a “huge priority” and said his caucus is working on a bill to increase hiring.

“I think I think that’s going to be an opportunity to really do something transformational in education, not just the funding part,” he said.

Democratic priorities

Democrats said they had other priorities for the session, too.

Cannizzarro said lawmakers know costs are high for Nevada families.

“We’re doing everything and looking into anything we can to help reduce those costs for families,” she said.

She included work that has been done in past sessions, such as addressing the affordability of health care.

“We continue to remain invested in helping to build our workforce, both through apprenticeship programs and workforce training programs, through supporting small businesses,” she said.

She also listed housing as a priority.

“We have an obligation to make sure we’re instituting some common-sense ways to ensure that families both have access to more housing, by investing in housing projects, and making sure that is happening so people have the ability to find a place but also to make sure that they have some stability in the place that they call home,” she said.

Yeager, on the other hand, said protecting access to abortion is a priority, referencing a bill Cannizzaro pledged to introduce during the session that would codify former Gov. Steve Sisolak’s executive order that protects out-of-state patients and the health care professionals that provide abortion from prosecution by other states.

He said the caucus is also “allied” with priorities from other players, including a Senate bill aimed at fake elector schemes and legislation from the secretary of state’s office focused on protecting poll workers.

He said continuing progress on protecting the environment is on his radar too.

Republican priorities

Gansert said public safety is a priority for her caucus, including bills toughening fentanyl prosecutions and a pay increase for law enforcement, which was proposed by the governor in his State of the State address.

Her caucus is also focused on licensing reciprocity, which would allow out-of-state professionals, especially those in the health care field, to start practicing in Nevada sooner. The practice was addressed in an executive order signed by the governor last month.

“We were very pleased with what the governor announced at the State of the State, everything from reopening government to investing a significant amount of money into K-12 to make sure we can move the needle on K-12 education,” she said.

Gansert said Nevadans can expect better education outcomes.

“The stabilization account, the Rainy Day Fund, is really smart because we always know the economy’s going to turn, and I’ve been doing this for a little while, have been in a couple of downturns, and it’s very hard to cut the budget so we need to make sure that we save enough and we don’t overspend,” she said.

O’Neill said he’s “ecstatic” about a bill that will come from the Committee on Commerce and Labor that will look at license reciprocity, especially for nurses.

He said the state needs to diversify its economy to move away from reliance on gaming and mining.

“We need to diversify out, and I’m very happy to see with some of the businesses the small and the large businesses that are looking at Nevada and coming to Nevada. And we’ve got to keep that moving forward,” he said.

He said increasing Medicaid reimbursement for providers and continuing to promote telehealth services for behavioral health needs are priorities for him.

O’Neill said his caucus is considering bills on election integrity, including one that would require mail-in ballots to be postmarked by the last day of early voting and received by Election Day to be counted and legislation related to requiring voter ID. He also said bills related to protecting firearm possession were in the works.

Working together for Nevada

Gansert said having a Republican in the governor’s office brings “a better balance of power.”

“In the past, I think the senators have worked well together, and I’m excited that we have Joe Lombardo as governor so that we can create better policy with the balance of power,” she said.

The split in power between the branches could actually be a good thing, said Fred Lokken, a professor of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College.

“A governor coming in when the other party is controlling the Legislature has played out and a variety of different ways in Nevada, but normally it’s been seen as an opportunity to step away from partisanship and focus on more bipartisan, ‘What can we agree to do?’” he said.

And those two sides will have to work together. Democrats don’t have enough members in the Senate to override a veto from the governor. But the Republican governor will have to work with Democrats to get his preferred legislation through the process, too.

“The political stakes are much higher for the new governor. It’s his first budget. It’s his first year in office,” Lokken said. “He’s elected to provide a broad, higher level leadership in the state and in the public is going to focus much more on what he is doing or not doing as opposed to trying to focus on an amorphous legislative body. I would say the Democrats probably in this case, with their majority, have an edge in this process.”

Yeager said he’s been “encouraged so far” by conversations with the governor.

“The legislative process always requires a three-legged stool. You need the Senate, you need the Assembly and you need the governor’s office. None of us can do anything by ourselves,” he said.

O’Neill said he believes the governor will take a “very strong look” at the legislation that comes to his desk with an eye towards bipartisanship.

He said he has a good relationship with Yeager, and said there will have to be discussion on the “give and take.”

“They’ll need to work with us, and we’ll need to work with them,” he said.

O’Neill said he’s optimistic about the session.

“We’re in for a learning experience with both sides,” he said. “We’re gonna have to learn to give and take some more and open up to conversations and stand our ground when we do disagree.”

David Damore, a professor and chair of the political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said a partisan split between the branches of government can actually be “quite fruitful.”

“It works out well for the Republican governors because the Democratic legislators kill all the far-right bills, and it helps the leadership telling some of their far-left members that their bills aren’t gonna go anywhere with a Republican governor,” he said. “So it forces a little bit to play towards the middle a little bit more on areas where you can find collaboration and compromise.”

Contact Taylor R. Avery at TAvery@reviewjournal.com. Follow @travery98 on Twitter.

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