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Fiscal fireworks still to come at the legislature

Updated April 23, 2019 - 10:01 pm

CARSON CITY

Nevada’s upcoming budget will be its largest ever. But legislators still want to spend more than is available.

Last session, lawmakers approved a two-year general-fund budget of $8.3 billion. Gov. Steve Sisolak recommended a spending plan of around $9 billion. But the actual increase is understated. When the economy is humming, the Distributive School Account requires fewer general fund dollars to meet the state’s per-pupil spending guarantee.

Still, Sisolak isn’t the only one who likes spending money. Lawmakers from both parties have proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in new expenditures, according to an analysis by the Nevada Taxpayers Association.

These proposals include Assembly Bill 196, which would provide $20 million to attract teachers to Title I or low-performing schools, and Assembly Bill 223, which would provide dental care for disabled adults at the cost of $14 million. In addition, Assembly Bill 358 would provide $21 million to attract doctors to rural Nevada and Senate Bill 444 authorizes $24 million to expand pre-K programs. Republicans also want additional tax credits to help children continue to access the Opportunity Scholarship program.

That’s only a sampling of the dozens of bills that would drive the state budget skyward.

Then there are the big-ticket items. Sisolak promised to reduce class-sizes, pass collective bargaining for state workers and increase pay for teachers.

Class-size reduction efforts have gone nowhere. Sisolak didn’t provide additional funds in his budget, despite promising to “reduce overcrowding.” Assemblywoman Brittney Miller, D-Las Vegas, had 19 co-sponsors on Assembly Bill 304. It would have mandated smaller classes by the 2028-29 school year. An amendment gutted the bill, leaving behind a requirement that school districts share a plan to reduce class sizes. It would be nice to think lawmakers recognized that class-size reduction efforts are largely a waste of money. But they didn’t. They just don’t have the money.

Sisolak promised collective bargaining for state workers. If passed, that budget-buster won’t go into effect until the next budget cycle. Sisolak did include an across-the-board 3 percent raise for teachers in his budget. The Clark County School District, however, says the funding formula isn’t spitting out enough money to pay for raises of any kind.

The Clark County Education Association has been threatening a strike for weeks. It is now demanding a $240 million increase in education funding over the next biennium. But the money isn’t there and no one is talking about a tax increase of that magnitude.

The only deus ex machina available is the Economic Forum meeting on May 1. That’s when economists will make binding revenue projections for the next two years that will determine how much the Legislature has to spend. But even if politicians end up with more to spend, it won’t be enough to satisfy everyone.

Unlike the federal government, Nevada has to balance its budget. That means the fiscal fights are still to come.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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