COMMENTARY: ESA disagreements come to a head in Carson City

CARSON CITY – It was the vote that would reveal whether there was a session-ending deal. On the agenda: Senate Bill 487, which contained a 10 percent excise tax on recreational marijuana, with proceeds to go to education.

The bill needed a two-thirds majority, because it contains a tax increase. If a deal on the controversial Education Savings Accounts was in place, at least some Republicans would vote yes. But if not, GOP leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, had pledged his caucus would withhold its votes.

The secretary read the bill. No one spoke. Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchinson ordered the clerk to open the voting roll. Names quickly turned to green for yes, red for no. And when every vote was tallied, it was 12 in favor (all the Democrats and one non-partisan) and nine against (all Republicans).

The bill failed.

Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, immediately moved to reconsider. He gave a fiery speech, almost daring the Senate’s Republicans to oppose the bill.

The voters approved recreational marijuana on the 2016 ballot, Ford reminded. The $60 million in taxes raised would go to public schools. It was good policy. Without it, there would be a hole in the state budget. Programs favored by Republicans may have to be cut in order to make up that missing money, he said. “There’s no good reason not to pass this bill,” Ford declared.

Republicans were unpersuaded.

Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, who authored a neglected bill to fund Education Savings Accounts, said it was disingenuous of Democrats to lecture Republicans about what the bill was about. “The only thing we miss from this show is maybe a little bit of dinner,” he said.

Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, said he disagreed with the policy, coining a Twitter-worthy hashtag in the process: “The concept of pot for tots, I just can’t vote for,” he said.

But Sens. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, and Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas, reminded the Senate it had met in special sessions in recent years to authorize tax breaks for electric car companies Tesla and Faraday Future, and a tax increase to raise public funds for a football stadium. Would the Republican senators really vote against funding for public schools, raised through a tax that the marijuana industry agreed to pay?

Hutchison ordered the rolls opened again. The names changed from red to green. The result was the same: 12 in favor, nine against, two votes short of the 14 needed.

Several recesses followed. Ford finally led Democrats — Republicans had left the chamber — in transferring the $60 million recommended for ESAs into the schools budget, to make up for the missing marijuana tax money. The amended education budget was approved, 12-0, with nine Republican members absent.

Negotiations over ESAs had taken place behind the scenes during the session, and the two sides were close to a deal. But one GOP operative said Democrats never really wanted a compromise that included ESAs. There’s evidence to support that, from interviews conducted before the session to the statement released by Ford and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, after the Thursday legislative meltdown: “We continue to have deep concerns about how diverting public money to subsidize wealthy families would weaken our education system and threaten our children’s future,” the statement reads.

Then again, those negotiations had produced no agreement that Gov. Brian Sandoval would sign bills important to Democrats. If they were to ESAs, they certainly wouldn’t do so without something significant in return.

Republicans felt the same way: Roberson pointed to his pre-session promise to get a budget that includes ESAs, and pledged to withhold his support for any spending plan without them. “No ESA funding, no budget,” he declared on the Senate floor.

Sure enough, every Republican senator voted against the appropriations act, which passed anyway, and the capital projects budget, which failed to reach its required two-thirds majority. With four days left in the session, there’s still a long way to go.

Contact Steve Sebelius at 702-387-5276 or Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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