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Education budget fight is a war over mere scraps

As ever, it was lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis who called it. As lawmakers sat down to vote on restoring money to the proposed schools budget Tuesday, Vassiliadis bluntly put things in perspective.

“We’re restoring to what?” he asked. “To being 45th or 49th (in per pupil spending) in the best case?”

Indeed, no matter how much lawmakers eventually put back into the schools budget, Nevada is unlikely to climb out of its funding basement. To do that would require real money, figures that start with the letter “B.” And that money simply isn’t there.

That’s true even after Gov. Brian Sandoval’s plan to direct to schools about $275 million in additional funds that the state’s Economic Forum says will roll in during the next two years. Sandoval’s politically deft handling of that money can’t erase the fact Nevada’s school spending was inadequate even during the boom times.

Since then, the recession has taken its toll, and help is not on the way. As journalist and author Robert Scherer drolly noted during last weekend’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, while big banks at the heart of the financial crisis have been bailed out, states have not been made whole. And while one-time federal stimulus funds (peanuts compared to the bailout) helped Nevada balance its books in the past, that’s not going to happen this time.

Lawmakers are left with difficult choices. On Tuesday, they addressed some.

In particular, the joint Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees rejected a proposal by Sandoval to use at least $232 million of school district bond reserve funds for ongoing operations.

“Taking money from school districts is not the answer,” said Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, who noted the governor started out recommending about $425 million in bond reserve funds, but was forced to lower his estimate as numbers were crunched.

But even if the numbers penciled out, Horsford said, the policy is bad. After all, once the funds are used, they’re gone. What’s the state going to do two years from now when it’s faced with a hole of at least $232 million? In a bit of political serendipity, even the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute — a frequent Horsford critic — agreed using bond funds for ongoing expenses was bad policy.

Republicans on the joint committee had a repeated complaint that surfaced throughout Tuesday’s hearing: How can budget decisions be made before the state first knows how much money is available to spend? Put another way, since Democrats have put off having a “revenue” (read: tax) discussion until the budgets are finished, isn’t creating what amounts to a fiscal wish list and then figuring out how to pay for it backwards?

It’s an eminently reasonable complaint. Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the Legislature’s job is to decide its priorities first. “There will certainly be discussion on how this budget is funded or if it is (funded) at all,” she said.

Yes, but that decision will come after budgets have been formalized, when the tendency is to raise money to reach a particular number, rather than to organize priorities around what the state has to spend.

It’s not to say the priorities conversation doesn’t need to happen. Vassiliadis said as much before the hearing. “Education is an investment, not an expense,” he said. “As an investment, we expect a return.”

But like all good investments, the more you put in, the more you earn. And for Nevada, no matter how the budget battles end up, that number won’t be nearly enough.

 

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist, and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 387-5276 or at ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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