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Democrats reveal their big number, but not how to pay for it

Now we have a number, at least.

During a news conference in Carson City on Monday, state Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis put a figure to the wish list of education proposals Democrats have been proffering since the 2013 Legislature began.

According to Denis, the state ought to spend more than $300 million on top of what Gov. Brian Sandoval has recommended for the state’s schools.

That money would buy pre-kindergarten programs, full-day kindergarten, class-size reduction, more English-language learner classes and an end to social promotion, in which students who can’t read are advanced to the next grade anyway.

It’s a worthwhile agenda. The only way Nevada is ever going to attract the kinds of businesses that set up shop in neighboring California, Arizona and Utah (in spite of those states’ business taxes) is to provide a workforce that’s ready to do the job. That starts before kindergarten, and doesn’t end until after a student turns a tassel at college graduation.

And it’s not just Democrats who are interested in that agenda. Gov. Brian Sandoval has agreed to expand full-day kindergarten in some at-risk schools, and he’s led the charge to ensure students can read by the end of third grade. Republicans and Democrats have supported class-size reduction in the past (and the $95 million Democrats are proposing this time around is merely the restoration of funds for the program that were cut in 2010).

There may be a gap in some of the ideas, or in how quickly or how comprehensively we pursue them, but it’s not unbridgeable.

Now, there’s just one more thing: Where do we get the money for all this?

The Democrats have yet to give a concrete answer to that question, although they say that if Republicans agree on the agenda, they should help find the money. That’s a time-honored strategy of political negotiation, but one that won’t work on lawmakers — such as Sandoval — who’ve already declared they won’t support new taxes beyond the extension of a package of supposedly temporary taxes that were to have expired in 2011.

On Monday, some Assembly Republicans said there are limits to what the state can do.

“We all want what’s best for our kids,” Assemblyman Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas, said in a statement released in response to the Democratic news conference. “Great opportunities in life start with a great education. There are, however, realities and limitations that we have to work with — a fragile economy with struggling families trying to save their homes and businesses trying to keep their employees on payroll. They can’t absorb more tax burdens.”

Although the general fund budget is $6.55 billion, it’s unlikely Democrats can free up more than $300 million within the existing plan, or that Sandoval would agree to let them do it. That means more tax burdens.

But where? The Nevada State Education Association has proposed a business margins tax by initiative, but that will probably go before voters next year, and wouldn’t go into effect until the year after that. Ditto for the elimination of the cap on net proceeds of minerals. Clark County’s sales tax rate is already 8.1 percent, and it could go higher if a levy for more cops is approved. And so-called sin taxes never generate as much as their backers hope.

So, where do we get the money? Democrats want Republicans to help answer the question, but the party that proposes an idea has an obligation to tell the public how much it will cost and how the money will be raised.

Give Democrats credit, at least, for having this discussion at the start of the session, rather than at a chaotic and crisis-ridden end. What they need now is a tax plan worthy of their education goals, and the fortitude to sell it to the public.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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