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ESA blame game splits Nevada GOP

Nevada Republicans are split over who is to blame for the failure to fund the state’s dormant education savings accounts.

Some Republican lawmakers blast the Legislature’s Democratic majority, accusing it of negotiating in bad faith with no intention of ever funding the program.

Other Republicans, however, have directed their ire within the party. They wanted Gov. Brian Sandoval to “go to the mat” for ESAs.

“I put it squarely on the shoulders of Governor Sandoval,” Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Others still say the 2017 session included a string of successes for the GOP.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, said the party had three priorities going into the legislative session: fund ESAs, stop the push to increase property taxes and prevent the reversal of laws passed in 2015, when Republicans controlled the Legislature.

The bills to raise property taxes never made it out of committee, and every bill that would roll back 2015 legislation died or was vetoed by Sandoval. Although the ESA fund remains empty, Republicans did get a one-time $20 million injection into an existing school choice program.

“To me, we won,” Roberson said.

The ESA battle

The ESA program, created in 2015, would give parents a portion of state per-pupil funding and allow parents to use that money to send children to private schools. The state Supreme Court ruled the program legal but said funding cannot come out of the state’s public education budget.

Going into the session’s final week, the Senate and Assembly Republican caucuses planned to vote against key funding bills, which would have put major holes in the state’s budget. Many Republicans believed Sandoval would veto any budget without ESA funding.

They were wrong.

Sandoval declared June 2 that there would be no special session.

With four days left in the session, Republican leverage was gone.

“That was ridiculous,” Assemblyman Jim Marchant, R-Las Vegas, told the Review-Journal. “Why do you want to take that off the table?”

A day before Sandoval’s announcement, all nine GOP senators voted against a capital improvement project bill that included funding for a veterans home and scores of infrastructure projects. The bill needed two-thirds support — meaning two Republican votes — to pass the Senate.

But Sandoval’s declaration caused the caucuses to cave, Marchant said.

On Sunday, Republican Sens. Ben Kieckhefer, Heidi Gansert and Becky Harris switched their votes.

Marchant called the vote “shameful” and referred to “spineless leadership” in two tweets Sunday.

“If Governor Sandoval was as passionate about ESAs as some of us were, it would have gotten done,” Marchant said. “I guarantee it.”

“I don’t think he ever had the heart for it,” Hansen said.

Kieckhefer said it would have been wrong to hold up funding for projects like the veteran’s home that would come from the capital improvement project bill as a symbolic gesture after it was clear Republican leverage was gone.

“I’m not going to take a hostage that I’m unwilling to shoot,” Kieckhefer said.

But some Republicans say the caucus should have stayed united.

“They should have stood their ground,” Assemblyman John Ellison, R-Elko, said of the Republicans who voted for the capital improvement project bill. “That’s (ESA funding) what we all went there for. That was our hill to die for.”

Finding a win

Instead of continuing the fight, it became about getting the best deal possible for Republican leadership.

That included getting $20 million in tax credits to expand the state’s Opportunity Scholarships, which give tax credits to businesses in exchange for donations to nonprofits that provide scholarships for low-income children.

Several Republicans, including Gansert, Kieckhefer, Roberson and Sen. Scott Hammond, said the injection into the scholarship fund is a win for school choice.

But with all the talk about Republicans’ top legislative priority being ESA funding, the tax credit is not a win to some party members.

“They can say what they want, but you can’t put lipstick on a pig and make it pretty,” Ellison said.

Not the first GOP schism

Hansen called conceding on the ESA fight this year “the biggest sellout since the commerce tax.”

That came in 2015, when Sandoval pushed for a $1.5 billion tax package passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature.

That splintered the Nevada GOP to a degree.

Anti-tax Republicans like Hansen lambasted the move, and the state GOP followed suit in 2016 by endorsing primary challengers in seven races in which the incumbent voted for the tax. Two of those challengers, including Marchant, defeated Republican incumbents and went on to win seats in November, although Democrats seized the majority in both houses of the Legislature.

Hansen said losing ESA funding could force a similar split for voters — and that could harm the GOP in 2018 elections, when several Republican-held seats, including governor, attorney general and a U.S. Senate seat, will be on the ballot. The GOP cannot afford internal problems given that Nevada has 90,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, Hansen added.

“If we’re going to win any statewide races, we better be sure we have absolute loyalty for our base.”

Contact Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com 702-383-4638. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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