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Tensions rise as governor, legislative Democrats clash over state budget

Updated May 25, 2023 - 6:34 pm

CARSON CITY — A clash over the state budget came to a head Thursday, with Democratic legislative leaders saying the impasse is holding up major legislation including bills to bring the Oakland Athletics to Las Vegas and create a multibillion-dollar film tax credit program.

Just minutes after Democratic leadership on Thursday said it would “be hard to justify” vetoing the state budget, Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo vowed again to do just that if his legislative agenda is ignored.

“I will not sign any budget bills until my priorities are addressed. Period,” Lombardo said in a statement. “So, before the Senate and Assembly take final action on these five (budget) bills today, tomorrow, or the next day, I suggest they reconsider their decision and delay final passage until the policy priorities that I spelled out on day one are on my desk. If they choose to test my resolve, I’ll make it easy for them.”

The stalemate could threaten some of the session’s biggest priorities, including up to $380 million in tax support for a $1.5 billion Oakland Athletics ballpark in Las Vegas and a bill to create an estimated $4.6 billion in film tax credits over the next two decades.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro warned during a press conference with other Democratic leaders that those priorities could not move forward until the state has a budget.

“We don’t know what the budget is going to be. And if we don’t have an agreement on this is what we’re funding the state at, it’s just really hard to have that kind of a conversation in some sort of final fashion,” the Democratic leader said of the discussions around those big-ticket items.

And it’s not just baseball teams and made-in-Nevada movies at risk of death prior to sine die. Without a budget, lawmakers won’t know how much money is left over to spend on dozens of bills requiring funds from the state.

Lombardo’s staff first indicated last week that he would veto the budget if his priorities weren’t met. The Democrat-controlled Legislature introduced the five bills comprising the state budget on Monday evening.

Much of the friction around the budget surrounds just one of those bills. Senate Bill 503, which was sent to the governor’s desk Thursday afternoon following a party-line vote in the Assembly, creates an $11 billion spending plan for the state’s K-12 schools over the next biennium.

Under the bill, per student spending would increase by more than $2,000 from the last biennium, pushing those annual averages to $12,863 in 2024 and $13,368 in 2025.

But Republicans in both houses raised objections to the education bill despite it containing approximately $300 million more than the governor’s budget. Part of that fight is over a $291 million pot of excess cash pulled from an education rainy day account, funds Republicans say should have been directed toward childhood literacy programs and teacher pipeline initiatives.

Those funds instead were directed into an account supporting per student spending, a move that Senate Minority Leader Heidi Seevers Gansert, R-Reno, and other Republicans argued could lead the state to a “fiscal cliff” because the funds weren’t pulled from a sustainable funding source.

But Democrats pushed back against the claim during Thursday’s press conference.

“We’ve been able to make a huge investment and to somehow think we’re going to be criticized for giving too much money to a chronically underfunded K-12 education system, that is wild to me,” said Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas.

Lawmakers also voted to send Senate Bill 504 to the governor’s desk Thursday. The bill, which authorizes spending by state agencies, passed through both houses unanimously.

The three remaining budget bills all passed on party lines in the Assembly on Wednesday and await a vote on Senate floor. They include Assembly Bill 520, which funds state government operations; Assembly Bill 521, a bill authorizing more than $1 billion in capital improvement projects; and Assembly Bill 522, which makes up state employees’ salaries and raises.

Despite opposition by Republicans, Democratic leadership said the budget is “80 to 90 percent” in agreement with Lombardo’s proposed budget.

“Does the budget include everything he wanted? No, of course not. Does it include some things we weren’t thrilled about? Yes, of course it does. Because that is the very definition of compromise,” Yeager said.

But Democrats were seemingly unwilling to budge on some of the governor’s legislative priorities, including the Opportunity Scholarships program, calling them “a hard ask.” Opportunity Scholarships cover tuition for private schools and capital funding for charter schools.

“It’s very hard to justify taking some additional dollars and putting it into private schools when we know that there’s still work to be done even with a historic investment for public education,” Cannizzaro said.

The majority leader also warned that discussions regarding policy would not occur during a special session, signaling the end of session as a hard deadline for the governor’s legislative priorities to advance.

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

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