Sen. Harry Reid said Thursday that he doesn’t think Nevada should get a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that would allow legislators to fund education at lower levels and still receive federal stimulus money.
Speaking to reporters at an event in Henderson, the Nevada Democrat said the Legislature should find a way to at least fund schools at levels it did three years ago. States are required to spend at least as much on education as they did in 2006 to trigger the federal money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“All we ask is that you take care of the kids at least to the level you did in 2006,” the Senate majority leader said. “That’s three years ago. We’ve had tens of thousands of new kids come into our schools in Clark County since then. Shouldn’t you at least be able to fund the 2006 (amount)? Because of that, I’m not going to agree to any waiver.”
About $324 million for K-12 and higher education could flow into Nevada’s coffers if the state meets the bill’s requirements or gets them waived. Legislators currently are working with Education Department officials to figure out how they can craft a budget that will secure a waiver and get the money.
But Reid said Thursday he didn’t think the state should get off the hook when it comes to adequate funding for education.
“They are going to have to meet that standard,” he said. “I have grandchildren in the school district, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure, with whatever ability I have, that my children are taken care of.”
He didn’t say how legislators and the governor, currently grappling with a budget shortfall that’s been pegged as high as $3 billion, should get the money.
“The Legislature’s got to figure that out on their own. I can’t help them do that,” he said. “I’m not going to agree to the waiver.”
The comments appeared to signal a change of heart for Reid. In February, when the stimulus bill passed, Reid’s staff said he had been instrumental in getting the waiver requirement included in the legislation in order to help his home state.
“Senator Reid helped protect the provision to allow states like Nevada to apply for a waiver for education funding,” Reid spokesman Jon Summers told the Review-Journal on Feb. 19.
Reps. Shelley Berkley and Dina Titus, both D-Nev., also advocated for the waiver’s passage, writing a joint letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi explaining Nevada’s dire economic situation.
“While we certainly agree that states should be held accountable for maintaining appropriate levels of funding for education programs on their own balance sheets, we believe it would be helpful to build in a degree of flexibility for those states facing the worst budget shortfalls,” they wrote in the Feb. 10 letter.
After Reid made the comments Thursday, a spokesman issued a “clarification” noting that what happens between the governor, the Legislature and the Education Department is not up to the state’s senior senator, despite his vow to “do everything” in his power.
“As he has said many times, Senator Reid believes education should be funded at the 2006 levels,” Tom Brede said in the statement. “Ultimately whether to grant Nevada a waiver is a decision for the Secretary of Education to make based on a clearly defined process. The state will either qualify or it won’t.”
The Education Department is still in the process of issuing regulations and guidelines for states to apply for the waiver, which under the law only the governor can request. Gov. Jim Gibbons, a Republican, has notified the department that the state intends to seek the waiver.
Gibbons spokesman Daniel Burns said Thursday that Reid’s comments were indicative of “close-mindedness and partisanship.” Where, he demanded to know, is the state supposed to get more money for the education budget at a time when people are struggling to get by?
“Senator Reid’s suggestion could only mean that he would support raising taxes on Nevadans at a time when the economy is in serious trouble,” Burns said. “Governor Gibbons would urge the senator to spend more time in Nevada. Maybe then he would understand the seriousness of the economic crisis.”
Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, said the way to fund education at 2006 levels, as Reid demands, is to get the money from the stimulus, using the waiver.
Legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle had a “very successful conference call” with top-level Education Department officials Thursday morning, Buckley said, and made progress in understanding the complicated ins and outs of the waiver. They expect to get a firm understanding by next week of what the state will have to do and how, she said.
“Senator Reid’s point is that he wants to see education funded at the 2006 level, and I think everybody in the Legislature agrees with that — including the use of the stimulus money,” Buckley said.
Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@ reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.