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Political standoff over education savings accounts could threaten timely end to Nevada Legislature

CARSON CITY — Sometimes, bills linger in the legislative building because interested parties are forging compromises behind the scenes. Sometimes, bills linger because lawmakers want them to die.

In the case of Education Savings Accounts, it’s the latter.

On Monday, the 113th day of the 120-day session, a joint Assembly-Senate committee finally heard Gov. Brian Sandoval’s Senate Bill 506, which would fix some legal problems with his ESA proposal. The bill was introduced on March 27, day 50 of the session. And that came after the Legislature ignored the identical Senate Bill 359, introduced on March 20 (day 43) by Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, the original author of ESAs in the 2015 session. And the hearing was scheduled with scant notice — on a holiday, to boot.

The delay was not an oversight. Democrats opposed ESAs in 2015, but were powerless to stop the Republican majority in from passing the program. But now that Democrats are back in charge, ESAs have suffered from hostile neglect, at best. Lawmakers have been talking, but have seen scant progress.

For Democrats, the issue is clear and oft-repeated: Public dollars should go to support public schools, not to subsidize private ones. They know every dollar spent in support of ESAs is a dollar that won’t be spent on public education or another responsibility.

Not only that, but private schools don’t necessarily have the same policies in place as public schools, including anti-discrimination and anti-bullying rules. (To be sure, the state Senate last week amended an anti-bullying bill so that private schools have the option of complying, but not the mandate.)

And ESA supporters do themselves no favors by demanding state money while insisting they shouldn’t be held to some of the same standards as public schools. State money flowing to private schools comes with strings attached, and schools that object should refuse to take the funds.

All of those ideas emerged at Wednesday’s hearing, as groups from the Nevada State Education Association to the PTA to progressive groups to the ACLU of Nevada came out to oppose the concept.

But if the wall of Democratic indifference and the well of liberal opposition has dissuaded Republicans in the least, they didn’t show it.

Despite the short notice, Gov. Brian Sandoval’s top aides showed up to defend SB 506. “The governor’s position is he would like to have as much choice as possible,” said chief of staff Mike Willden. And many parents turned out to ratify Willden’s remarks, one literally begging lawmakers to approve the program.

While both sides appeared to be at odds, Assemblyman Justin Watkins, D-Las Vegas, outlined a “conceptual” amendment that just might save the program. Instead of $60 million from the general fund, ESAs would be funded by corporate donations repaid with tax credits (capped at $30 million over the next two years). Instead of flat amounts, ESAs would be awarded based on family income, with poorer students getting more and well-off students getting less. Schools that receive ESAs would have to adopt anti-discrimination rules in their bylaws.

The ideas didn’t surprise anybody; they were discussed by members of both parties groping behind closed doors toward a final compromise. But at the end of Monday’s hearing, nothing had changed. Democrats and their allies were still opposed, Republicans (including Sandoval) were still in favor.

And the end of the session hangs in the balance. Republicans have pledged to withhold support for Democratic priorities, and to vote against bills that require two-thirds majorities — such as recreational marijuana taxes sought by the governor — if they don’t get ESAs. Sandoval’s veto remains a Damoclean sword over the looming end of the session.

“We feel like we have a promise to fulfill,” said Assembly Minority Leader Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas. “There’s obviously demand for it [ESAs].”

Whether that demand sways both sides to compromise, however, is the most pressing question in Carson City right now.

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

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