The school bond bill that blew through the Legislature last week came with a steep price tag — one every bit as expensive as the estimated $3.5 billion in Clark County School District construction it enables.
The political split between the majority Republicans who control the Senate and Assembly widened in the scramble to speed the groundbreaking for new elementary schools needed to ease campus crowding. Bad blood created by moderate Republicans’ refusal to address any of the concerns of fiscal conservatives threatens much of the party’s agenda, especially Gov. Brian Sandoval’s business tax increase and the education initiatives it would fund.
In fact, the bizarre buildup to the bill’s passage could invite legal challenges to both the bond rollover and the governor’s tax plan, should it pass.
The whirlwind two days in Carson City saw Assembly Republicans fight mightily over Senate Bill 119 — including a hallway confrontation that required a police response. The bill attached a prevailing wage exemption to the bond rollover that allows school boards to extend borrowing on existing bonding authority by 10 years. Minority Democrats were united in opposition to the prevailing wage provision, which was hated by their union base for prohibiting state-set, above-market construction wages on the school projects the bond would fund. Although the bill had unanimous GOP support in the Senate, the prevailing wage exemption wasn’t enough to entice the support of a majority of the Assembly’s 25 Republicans. They didn’t want to bypass the electorate, which by law must approve school bonds, and they considered the bond rollover a massive tax increase. Although the measure wouldn’t increase property tax bills, it would extend the taxes that repay existing school bonds.
So the Assembly Government Affairs Committee killed SB119 Tuesday on an 8-6 vote, with two Republicans against, then came back and passed it on another 8-6 vote after those Republicans were persuaded to change their minds.
That was enough drama for Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, who quickly obtained passage of Senate Bill 207, a bond rollover without the prevailing wage exemption — exactly what Democrats wanted. It was clear that SB119 wouldn’t pass the Assembly, so SB207 was brought to the floor and passed on a 27-14 vote, with all votes against it cast by the GOP. Republican leaders allowed the vote even though the majority Assembly caucus opposed it by a 14-10 margin.
Republicans who wanted only a two-year rollover and a 2016 vote of the people were ignored, as were those who insisted the bond was a tax increase that required a two-thirds supermajority, a threshold it didn’t reach. They stuck to their principles and lost anyway because Sandoval and Roberson were not going to let the bond rollover fail.
But as a result of this battle, the number of Assembly Republicans who oppose Sandoval’s budget and proposed gross-receipts-based business license fee might have grown. Because of that two-thirds requirement, if 15 Assembly Republicans oppose that tax hike, it can’t pass. Period. Fourteen voted against the bond rollover, but the most fiscally conservative member of the caucus, Las Vegas Republican Michele Fiore, was absent, and fellow tax opponent Victoria Seaman voted for the bond.
Before last week’s Republican conflagration, there were rumblings of a legal challenge to the governor’s new business license fee (if it passed) because it would tax different industries at different rates, in violation of the state constitution’s requirement that levies be uniform and equal. Now the bond rollover might lead to a lawsuit before session’s end for not having two-thirds support and for declaring that prior voter approval of a bond is sufficient authorization. Such actions would create quite a chill of uncertainty.
The question now, with three months left in the session and a whole lot of business to settle, is whether Republican relations can actually get worse.
NewsFeed, the policy breakfast series co-sponsored by the Review-Journal and the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, returns St. Patrick’s Day for a panel discussion on K-12 education.
I’ll moderate a conversation with Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky; Nevada State Board of Education Vice President Allison Serafin; Kati Haycock, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust; and Ruben Murillo, president of the Nevada State Education Association. We’ll discuss Gov. Brian Sandoval’s education reform agenda, current school initiatives to improve student achievement and what the state’s changing approach to education means for the business community.
The March 17 breakfast will be held at The Four Seasons on the Strip from 7:30 to 9 a.m. Tickets cost $40 per person and can be purchased by calling 702-641-5822. I hope to see you there.
Glenn Cook (email@example.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV.