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Portion of education funding for Nevada restored to stimulus bill

WASHINGTON — The $789 billion economic stimulus bill heading toward final votes in Congress restores some of the education funding that Nevada and other states are counting on to supplement their sagging budgets, senators said Wednesday.

All told, Nevadans could see benefits in the vicinity of $1 billion made available through a variety of avenues, ranging from pensioner payments, personal tax cuts and credits for college education, spending on road improvements and more generous benefits for residents still looking for jobs.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who was involved in the talks that produced a final deal in a little more than 24 hours, said Nevadans could find hope in the combination of tax reductions and federal spending on programs that are designed to create or save jobs.

“Nevada did very well,” Reid, the Senate majority leader, said Wednesday evening as he left a meeting in the Capitol of 10 senior House and Senate members who made up the official conference committee on the bill.

The conference meeting largely was a formality as House and Senate Democratic leaders formed the final package in private talks that involved the White House and the three Republican senators whom Reid will need to gain a 60-vote majority to finalize the bill.

Reid said some parts of the final bill still were being written on Wednesday night, and a number of details were not immediately available.

For instance, it was not clear whether the final bill preserves the option for Nevada to apply for a waiver if it doesn’t meet the requirements to claim more than $250 million in state bailout funds from the government. The Senate version had such a waiver, while the House version did not.

Speaking with reporters after the conference meeting, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he believed the final bill drops provisions preventing any stimulus spending from going to recreation projects, casinos and museums, such as the proposed organized crime museum in Las Vegas.

Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the bill does include a compromise business tax break formed by Reid, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and others that had been sought by resort companies and firms in other industries. The provision would allow lower tax rates to companies that refinance debt.

Clark County will be the beneficiary of a tax break on the refinancing of $400 million in bonds for improvements to McCarran International Airport, Reid’s office said. Without the provision, the airport would be at a disadvantage in trying to sell its bonds in the current credit market, Reid aides said.

Nevada legislators and state leaders in Carson City were watching closely as Congress decided the fate of a so-called “stabilization fund” of grants to bolster state spending on education.

The Senate had sliced $40 billion from the fund, taking it from $79 billion to $39 billion and reducing Nevada’s possible share from $509 million to $256 million.

The negotiators restored the fund to $54 billion, presumably increasing the shares of all states, although specific state breakdowns were not immediately available.

It was not immediately known whether the final bill would allow states to apply for a waiver if they could not meet the requirements to qualify for stabilization funding.

Nevada was among a handful of states where officials feared that budget shortfalls would make it difficult to comply with the requirement that they spent no less than they did in the 2005-06 fiscal year in order to get fresh assistance.

Baucus said the stabilization funds could be spent on school repairs and computer upgrades as well as elementary and secondary education programs, and community colleges and universities. Portions also could be used for public safety programs and other purposes, other senators said.

A separate $20 billion fund for school construction was eliminated. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who was one of the three GOP senators working with Democrats on the bill, said she objected.

The speedy deal on the stimulus bill that President Barack Obama has urged Congress to pass quickly was announced by Reid at mid-afternoon, and further formalized at the conference committee meeting, which was held in an ornate room off the Senate floor and was packed with staff members and journalists.

As the 10 lawmakers met around a large table, Republican Reps. Dave Camp of Michigan and Jerry Lewis of California protested that they had been shut out of the talks and they still had doubts.

While they spoke, Reid doodled on his copy of the bill, and scribbled notes to himself on a pad. Those eventually served as his talking points for when he was recognized to speak by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who ran the meeting.

Reid, the last to speak, turned to the Republicans.

“Nobody needs to lecture me or us on deficits because you invented them,” he said, charging that the Bush administration had frittered away sizable surpluses created by the President Bill Clinton.

“Of course this bill is going to have emergency spending,” Reid said. “That is what you do when you are in a hole like this and there is no other place to go.”

“I know there are some feelings that, shouldn’t we do more, shouldn’t we take more time,” Reid said.

“The time to act is now.”

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