CARSON CITY — Gov. Brian Sandoval’s fourth and final State of the State address was decidedly happier than his previous speeches.
Ho, ho, ho.
Sandoval’s first two addresses were tempered by the Great Recession. Two years ago, tension filled the room as Sandoval detailed his plan for the largest tax increase in Nevada history, including a sweeping gross-receipts tax.
This year the mood was lighter — because the spending was heavier. Sandoval proposed a record $8.1 billion in general fund spending, including record amounts to higher education, K-12 education and Medicaid.
Lawmakers received most spending proposals with applause. The high-powered lobbyists in reserved seats seemed supportive as well. And why not? Special interests pay those folks handsomely to direct some of your money to their pet projects, and the money was flowing.
Growing tax revenues finally gave Sandoval his turn as Santa Claus: $115 million more for the Nevada System of Education; $20 million to subsidize the Guinn Millennium Scholarship; a 4 percent cost of living adjustment for state workers; an additional $107 million to further implement weighted student funding in K-12 education; $41.5 million for a new Engineering Building at the University of Nevada, Reno; $3.5 million for cyberdefense; and more than $245 million in new Medicaid spending. He even had nice gifts for veterans, seniors and outdoor lovers.
Taxpayers must have been on his naughty list. Although the record tax increases of 2015 produced record tax revenues, Sandoval offered no tax relief. Republican elected officials walked out looking happy that the only new tax Sandoval proposed was a 10 percent excise tax on marijuana, which would produce $70 million for the Distributive School Account.
Sandoval’s address could have come from a Democrat — except for one item. Sandoval proposed $60 million for Education Savings Accounts, which offer parents the chance to take a portion of the money the state would have spent on a child’s public education and use it for private-school tuition, online schooling or home-based education options.
Republicans jumped to applaud the chance to help children get the education that’s best for them, while stoic Democrats sat. Seeing this, Sandoval quipped, “I knew I’d get a split house with that one.”
Sandoval urged lawmakers to work with ESA sponsor Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas. But with Democrats controlling both chambers of the Legislature, ESAs will only receive funding if Sandoval uses his veto pen as leverage.
The proposed funding doesn’t bode well for Sandoval’s commitment to ESAs. Sandoval’s budget caps ESA expenditures at $25 million for school year 2017-18 and $35 million for the following year, even though ESAs actually save tax money. That’s enough for around 4,800 of the 8,000 students who’ve already applied for ESAs, growing to 6,700 in the 2018-19 school year. Hammond’s original program contained no cap at all.
Sandoval proposed putting $200 million in the state’s rainy day fund, but overall, taxpayers should hold onto their wallets. For government special-interest groups more is never enough. Christmas in Carson City runs through June.
Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Nevada section each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.