Lawmakers enter beat-the-clock zone

CARSON CITY — Hoping to end the session on time for the first time since 1999, legislative leaders huddled behind closed doors Wednesday trying to find common ground on the public schools budget and other spending priorities.

Democrats, who control the Assembly, want more money put into public education this session, particularly for an expansion of all-day kindergarten even if the program cannot be fully funded over the next two years.

Democrats also want to keep much of the $60 million proposed by Gov. Jim Gibbons for empowerment schools in a current program that provides additional compensation to teachers in hard-to-fill teaching subjects and to those who teach in at-risk schools.

Empowerment schools still would be created by the Legislature through a policy measure, but with a lower level of funding than recommended by Gibbons, according to one person familiar with the discussions.

Leaders from both houses and both parties were working with legislative fiscal analysts to find additional money that could be spent on the public schools over the next two years.

Lawmakers were said to be looking at some of Gibbons’ “one-shot” appropriations in an effort to find additional revenues for the schools.

Legislative leaders met for much of the day on the budget issues, emerging from time to time to handle other duties. But lawmakers were tight-lipped about the discussions.

Reaching agreement on the public schools budget early is critical to adjourning the session on time.

Because of the provisions of a new constitutional requirement to fund education first, other spending bills for the 2007-09 budget cannot be given final approval by lawmakers.

With only 26 days left in the session, the public education budget must be approved soon to make the deadline.

Legislative leaders were scheduled to resume their discussions today.

Currently, 114 schools of 340 statewide now offer all-day kindergarten at a cost of $26 million a year. Schools allowed to offer the program have to meet the requirement that at least 55 percent of their students receive free or reduced-cost lunches.

Nine more schools now qualify for the program under such a formula but have not been funded. It would cost $1.4 million more a year to offer the program in these schools.

School superintendents statewide have asked that the program be expanded by reducing the formula to 38 percent of students who receive free or reduced lunches.

Expanding the program to such a level would require another $15.3 million a year.

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, and other Democrats, would like to reach at least this level of expansion of the program this session, but not until the second year of the budget in the 2008-09 fiscal year.

Funding the nine eligible schools plus the new, lower formula would require lawmakers to find nearly $17 million for the program in the second year of the budget.

Democrats have criticized Gibbons’ $6.8 billion budget for spending only $13 million on new programs for public education.

Lawmakers are being forced to look at funding already in the governor’s budget to shift to public education because less tax revenue has been forecast for the coming two years. Lawmakers also are looking at ways to cut spending by $30 million to balance the spending plan.

One other element of the discussion is how to slow the growth in the inmate population. A set of bills addressing this issue, possibly including the expansion of good-time credits for some inmates, is expected to be part of a budget package. Any savings from lower inmate population growth would be plowed back into corrections, however, in the form of more programs to help inmates succeed, including drug treatment.

There was no clear indication of what might be on the receiving end of cuts in new spending in the governor’s budget to fund the shortfall and any expanded public education proposals.

Some of the one-shot appropriations in Gibbons’ budget include $170 million to widen Interstate 15 in Las Vegas north of the interchange with U.S. 95, $20 million for the Nevada Cancer Institute, $12 million for Opportunity Village in Southern Nevada and $10 million for the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, among others.

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