CARSON CITY — Gov. Brian Sandoval said today that closing the state budgets without funding for the controversial Education Savings Account program was a “worthwhile compromise,” although he expressed disappointment that the program didn’t win more Democratic support.
“We fought hard. I’m as disappointed as anybody,” said Sandoval, who had included $60 million for ESAs in the budget he suggested to the Legislature in January. “The politics just weren’t there.”
Sandoval suggested that ESAs — which allow parents to take the state’s portion of per-student school funding and use it for tutoring, books, or tuition at private schools — could return in future sessions of the Legislature. The program is still in law, although it was enjoined by a Nevada Supreme Court ruling that said it could not be funded with money from the state’s schools fund.
State Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, and Sandoval introduced bills that would have funded the program independently of the state’s schools budget. Hammond’s bill was ignored by majority Democrats, although Sandoval’s received a hearing. Despite negotiations between the parties, however, Democrats (especially in the state Senate) refused to authorize Education Savings Accounts. State Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, called them “wealthy family coupons” in a speech on the Senate floor.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about money, it’s about kids,” Sandoval said. He lauded a one-time boost of $20 million into the Opportunity Scholarships fund, which allows private businesses to get tax credits for donating money that helps students attend private schools of their choice in Nevada.
Although state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, said as late as this week on the Senate floor, “no ESAs, no budget,” Sandoval never made a similar pledge. “I didn’t want to take a position that basically dug me in,” Sandoval said, adding he didn’t want to veto budget bills that could end up closing down state government. “I’m one who likes to keep my options open.”
But, the governor added, he didn’t give up easily on the ESA program. “We took it absolutely as far as we could,” he said.
“That’s water under the bridge, and we just move on,” he said. “I just don’t want this session to be defined by ESAs, because there’s a lot of other things that happened.”
Among the highlights, Sandoval said, were bills to facilitate job training for Nevada students to equip them to work in new industries; a juvenile justice bill; a bill to allow high-school students to also enroll in college classes; improvements to state parks; new cybersecurity efforts; and a bill to fight opioid addiction.