Legislature meltdown: Democrats blow up ESA deal, Sandoval vetoes bills

Updated June 1, 2017 - 8:13 pm

CARSON CITY — Fireworks lit up the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, and the explosions blew up a deal for Education Savings Accounts.

Senate Republicans had been withholding their votes on SB487, which would impose a new 10 percent excise tax on recreational marijuana. Gov. Brian Sandoval’s education budget included a projected $70 million from the tax. Because the bill would create a new tax, it needs two-thirds support in both houses — not a simple majority — to pass.

SB487 came up for a floor vote Thursday, meaning one of two things: Either the parties had reached a deal on the landmark school choice program, or Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, had decided to play chicken with Sandoval and his veto pen. The bill needed 14 votes.

It got 12. Ford moved for reconsideration, then gave a prepared lecture to his Senate colleagues on the need to fund public education, with an emphasis on public. (Among many things, ESAs can be used by parents to pay for private school tuition.) Another vote failed by the same margin.

Republicans then met with Sandoval, and Democrats began a prepared finger-pointing campaign.

“Over the past several weeks we have attempted to maintain an open dialogue and good-faith negotiations with Republicans working towards what we hoped could be a bipartisan compromise on education funding,” Ford and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, said in a joint statement. “Unfortunately, time and time again Republicans have undermined these discussions by moving the goalposts and refusing to meet us halfway.”

Republicans said they were prepared to accept numerous compromises, including changing the program’s funding source to tax credits, instituting a sliding scale and launching ESAs with less than Sandoval’s proposed $60 million.

The confrontation also caught Republicans by surprise because they thought a deal was in hand.

“As of several hours ago, we had come to an agreement on the future of the Education Savings Account (ESA) program,” said a statement from Assembly Republican leadership on Thursday afternoon.

In hindsight, a short-notice hearing Monday and Thursday’s pot vote look like efforts by Frierson and Ford to undermine negotiating sessions that had been too successful.

To politicize it further, Ford brought the Senate back into session without Republicans present and proceeded to pass the education budget. One insider told me that maneuver went far beyond typical end-of-session posturing and showed Democrats had made it about politics, not policy.

For his part, Sandoval didn’t blink, sending over five vetoes that afternoon.

There are four days left in the 2017 Nevada Legislature.

Unless Ford and Frierson backtrack, former Gov. Jim Gibbons’ veto record — 48 in 2009 — won’t survive past Monday.

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

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