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Assembly And Senate Leaders On What's Ahead For 2017 Legislature

Ken Lund/Flickr

The Nevada State Legislature starts its biennial session next week, and there’s a lot on the table.

Nevada looks different from many state assemblies in the U.S. For one, it’s blue – Democrats have substantial majorities in both the Senate and the Assembly.

This puts our state potentially at odds with the federal government. How will lawmakers handle issues like a potential drop in Medicaid funding and immigrant rights – which the federal government might put a squeeze on?

How will they handle school funding, education savings accounts, property tax calculations and a whole lot more?

We’re spending the entire hour talking to Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson.

Education funding

One of the biggest issues tackled in the 2015 legislative session was education and increasing funding for education. The Legislature passed and Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a tax hike to pay for $1.2 billion in education spending in the state.

But the 2015 legislature also passed a law mandating that the Clark County School District reorganize. And CCSD superintendent Pat Skorkowsky says that the reorganization can’t happen until the district receives weighted funding – which would allocate more money for students who are special needs. Estimates range from $600 million to $1.2 billion to meet those needs.

In fact, weighted funding is the subject of a lawsuit that CCSD has filed against the state. CCSD says that if they don’t get weighted funding, then the reorganization is an unfunded mandate, and therefore, unconstitutional.

“We are, as Democrats, clearly interested in ensuring that we have a thriving public education school system” Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford said, “We’ve enacted a few reforms over the last session or two and we’re looking forward to seeing those reforms take place.”

Ford said state lawmakers will have to take a look at how they can “fully fund an equitable system.” One of the main ways to get to an ‘equitable system’ is the weighted funding formula, which gives certain students extra money based on their needs.

So, for example, a special education student will get the per pupil spending plus additional dollars needed to address his or her particular needs. Other categories for extra funding include gifted and talented students, English language learners and students living in poverty.

“The weighted funding formula reflects a way to allocate funds to best serve those needs,” Speaker Frierson said, “Right now, without having that kind of flexibility, we have money going out to students without regard for greater need.”

As for actually getting bi-partisan help to come up with the money to pay for the weighted funding formula, Ford is hopeful.

“It’s going to take political wherewithal and gumption to do it,” Ford said. The senator said in the last session Democrats and Republicans came together to address school funding and he’s hopeful they’ll be able to do it again this session.

Education Savings Accounts

In his State of the State address, Gov. Brian Sandoval’s budget included $60 million to fund Education Savings Accounts. Education Savings Accounts or ESAs were enacted at the very end of the 2015 session. They would have provided parents with public money to help pay for the private school of their choice.

The state’s high court struck down ESA’s last year because of how they were funded, but the court also left the door open for lawmakers to find another way to funnel money to them.

During his response to the State of the State, Senator Ford argued against the program, which he calls a voucher program. He reiterated that opposition to KNPR’s State of Nevada.

“We have plenty of school choice available in our public schools right now,” Ford said. “The Democrats are dedicated to ensuring that we can improve those school choice opportunities within the public school system.”

He said charter schools, magnet schools, career and technical academies, and open enrollment all constitute school choice. Ford said some of those schools are nationally ranked and the state should be looking at putting resources into those options.

He is also concerned about accountability when it comes to private schools. Public schools must follow state and federal standards, but private schools often do not.

“Choice with no accountability is no choice at all,” he said, “If you’re going to put voucher money into a private school that doesn’t have the same accountability standards as our public school do then it is not a fair choice and it is not a fair comparison. Therefore we need to look at spending our money more appropriately.” 

Frierson has been a little less vocal about the ESAs issue because he believes lawmakers “need to have a dialogue” about it. However, he does agree with Ford’s concerns about putting public money in private schools that are not accountable to state standards.

“I also recognize that the Legislature is comprised of 63 individuals that have to come together to make some decisions,” he said.

He is also concerned about the amount of money allotted by the accounts, which was $5,500. Many people have pointed out that amount of money doesn’t cover the entire tuition for private schools in Nevada, which means people living in poverty could not afford the rest of the money.

“The reality is choice is not choice if it’s not choice for everyone,” Frierson said, “And so, if you have a voucher system that does not have enough in it to provide the full opportunity for some of the have-nots, for some of the struggling families, to take advantage of it then it’s not school choice.”

Property tax cap

One of the best ways to see Nevada’s boom and bust in stark reality is through the property tax cap. The cap was put in place during the boom years of the early 2000s. Property values were skyrocketing and property taxes went right along with them. In order to save homeowners from astronomical bills, lawmakers put in a cap of no more than 3 percent on residential properties and 8 percent on commercial properties.

However, when the financial crisis and housing market bust happened in 2008, property values plummeted and property taxes nosedived as well.

More importantly, a secondary cap was instituted that kept property taxes from growing based on a 10-year average. This secondary cap is keeping property taxes artificially low and – if the recovery continues – will result in a sudden increase as the 10-year average has more good years than bad.

Many lawmakers want to fix that property tax cap so that cities, towns and school districts don’t find themselves with budget holes now, and property owners don’t find themselves with suddenly larger bills as the 10-year average goes up.

“The reality is when we have a real estate market that rises and crashes we don’t stop needing to send our children to school,” Speaker Frierson said, “The property tax structure is one of the primary funders of our school system.”

Frierson said the state needs to provide a “stable funding source for our stable needs.” Frierson said it may not be the best time to talk about changing tax structure given the tax hike put into place last year, but he believes it needs to be addressed.

He would not give specifics on what the change in the cap would look like for individual property owners, but he does want to bring lawmakers from both sides along with property owners and local governments together during the 120 days of the session to talk about how to fix the problem.

Marijuana regulations

Voters said ‘yes’ to regulated, legal adult-use marijuana in the state of Nevada. However, there are lots of questions surrounding what that new legalized marijuana industry is going to look like. It will be up to lawmakers in Carson City to come up with regulations.

“We have a 120 days to figure that out,” Ford said.

He said many legislators have taken field trips to Oregon, Washington and Colorado to see how those states have dealt with the legalization of the drug. He said those lawmakers, particularly Senators Tick Segerblom and Patricia Farley, will be instrumental in making good decision about what the regulations will look like.

Mental Health system

The mental health system in Nevada has not always had a stellar reputation. Several years ago, accusations of patient dumping by a Southern Nevada psychiatric hospital prompted the governor to appoint a 20-person advisory council to investigate and make recommendations of how to improve the system.

Senator Ford said that mental health services will be a priority for Democrats in the upcoming session. 

“Under our leadership, it will be a priority in our state and we’re going to find the best ways to address those issues.”

Speaker Frierson says he believes the governor is proposing cuts in mental health funding and he questions whether that is the right move.

“We are using emergency rooms and jail beds as our mental health beds,” Frierson said, “And that is not an efficient way to deal with our mental health problem here in the state.”

President Trump’s immigration ban

The travel ban put into place Friday prohibits refugees and nationals from seven majority Muslim nations from coming to the United States for 90 days.

State Senator Ford called out Attorney General Adam Laxalt for not responding to the ban. He pointed out that 15 states and the District of Columbia have already talked about filing suit against the federal government for the ban.

“His name is not listed in there,” Ford said, “Adam Laxalt, I’m calling you out by name right now, because intellectual honesty would require you to stand up for the people in our state right now and talk about this as an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of people.”

Ford said the Democrats in the Legislature would “find ways to support everyone and protect the Constitution, every single amendment in the Constitution.”

State Senator Ford’s priority:

I think one of the important concepts we have to keep in mind is economic opportunities for Nevadans. We’re going to be looking at minimum wage hikes. We’re going to be looking at earned sick leave. We’re going to be looking at equal pay for equal work. Legislation that actually has teeth. We believe that people should not only be able to find a good job but a good paying job and that they’re treated fairly on their jobs. And that they can retire with security. We’re going to have a strong economic message this session. I look forward to getting to work on it.

Speaker Frierson’s priority:

We have to focus on the integrity of our electoral process. We have to talk about expansion of early voting options. We have to talk about reforms in who can vote, including voting rights restoration. I think we have to talk about ways to have our citizenry participate in the program or the process in a way that the public can be proud of. And we have to put energy into expanding those options and refining them so folks have some confidence in the system but that everyone is included.

Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford; Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson

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(EDITOR'S NOTE: Carrie Kaufman no longer works for KNPR News. She left in April 2018)