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Parties deliberate proposed cuts to state’s schools

CARSON CITY — There was no surprise at the Legislature on Tuesday night.

All of the Assembly’s 16 Republicans backed Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed $2.2 billion public school spending plan, while all 26 Democrats voted against it.

The nonbinding votes came during a five-hour Committee of the Whole hearing in the Assembly chambers where all 42 members could ask questions of the governor’s staff, educators and budget analysts or just offer their opinions on school spending.

The Legislature is not scheduled to adjourn until June 6, and the hearing showed what everyone probably already knew: Republicans are not going to budge from Sandoval’s and their own no-new-taxes promises, regardless of attempts by Democrats to make them look like meanies out to hurt schoolchildren.

There was no shouting or blaming, but legislators of each party uttered familiar arguments and offered no hint of compromise.

“Do we decimate education, or stop the bleeding?” asked Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, in opening the hearing. “I don’t think our current approach is working, and we need to stop the crippling cuts to education. Tonight we take a stand.”

“It doesn’t matter how the votes go here (today), our caucus is going ‘gov rec’ (the governor’s spending recommendations),” said Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka.

Republican and Democratic legislators could not even agree on how much Sandoval proposes to cut public education spending. In state budget documents, he proposes about a 9 percent, or $200 million, cut from current spending.

Assembly Ways and Means Chairwoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, contended the actual cuts are $1.1 billion compared with what was approved by the Legislature in 2009.

The hearing was the first of four called by Democratic leaders to gauge all legislators’ views on Sandoval’s most controversial budget proposals. The Senate will tackle public school spending today , and both houses will examine higher education spending Friday.

State Budget Director Andrew Clinger said he didn’t want to argue with Smith’s assertion of $1.1 billion in public school spending cuts, but he added it really “depends on how you look at it.”

He said Smith is counting as cuts $142 million that Sandoval did not put in the budget for step increases or merit pay for teachers.

“That is not a salary cut from where they are today, but a cut from what they could have earned (if Sandoval had budgeted the money),” Clinger said.

Smith later said she thought Republicans could agree that Sandoval’s cuts were at least $800 million.

Such statistical bickering went on for hours. Republicans said Nevada’s per pupil expenditures were more than $7,195 per student, 24th best in the country when you count construction spending.

But Democrats maintained Nevada will rank at the bottom among the states with state per pupil support under Sandoval’s budget at $4,877 per year.

Just how Democrats and Republicans don’t speak the same language was apparent in an exchange between Democrat Joe Hogan of Las Vegas and Republican Pete Livermore of Carson City.

Hogan called GOP efforts to reform collective bargaining for public employees and the prevailing wage as “just ventures in fantasy,” diverting attention from the real problem: the lack of revenue.

“We have a terrible revenue shortage and decline to raise taxes on our most capable businesses,” Hogan said.

But Livermore said Sandoval is trying to restore the economy with his no-new-taxes mantra.

“If you are going to tax people and businesses out of their homes, how are you going to restore the economy?” he asked.

Republicans had met with Sandoval aide Heidi Gansert before the hearing, and some of their questions seemed intended to give her positive talking points.

“Isn’t it true, the governor was elected with an overwhelming mandate to make this budget work?” asked Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks.

“We put forward a great effort to mitigate cuts,” responded Gansert, who sat on a chair in the Assembly chambers and defended Sandoval’s spending plan. “We understand the cuts are hard, but we also need time for the economy to recover.”

Joyce Haldeman, the Clark County School District’s associate superintendent for government and community relations, said Sandoval’s plan to use $300 million in construction bond reserves to help pay for operational costs of schools violates laws and the will of the voters.

“I doubt voters ever again will approve a bond if the governor’s plan is successful,” she said.

Clark County plans to lay off more than 1,800 teachers and other school employees because of a $400 million drop in local and state revenue. Without union concessions, layoffs could reach 5,400.

In response to Hansen, Washoe County School District Superintendent Heath Morrison pointed out that “the great people of Nevada elected a Legislature of a different party” and added that those citizens expect compromise.

Morrison also agreed with Smith that Sandoval is cutting education spending by more than $1 billion.

The state constitution requires a two-thirds vote to increase taxes and to override vetoes. As long as Republicans don’t break their promises, Democrats cannot pass any tax increases or a budget that does not meet with Sandoval’s approval.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@
reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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