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Legislature At An Impasse Over ESA Funding

Casey Morell

Democratic and Republican lawmakers were up late Wednesday night negotiating on a compromise that would allow some form of an Education Savings Account bill to pass. But it blew up Thursday afternoon when the entire Senate Republican caucus walked out of the Senate chambers before a vote on the general budget. After that, Democrats, and one Independent, voted 12-0- to pass a budget without any ESA money.

Later, after the Republicans filed back in their chamber, they were able to block the bill that would have imposed an excise tax on the sale of marijuana.

And so it went. Governor Brian Sandoval vetoed seven more bills - bringing the total to 17 - in what many in the progressive and education communities see as retaliation. One of those bills would have restricted development in the Red Rock Conservation Area.

But Jon Ralston says that those charges of retaliation might be overblown. The governor, who was previously a U.S. District Court judge, made clear in his veto of the Red Rock bill that he thought it was unconstitutional. But might some of the other bills the governor has vetoed come back to his desk if an agreement on ESAs is reached? And if an agreement on ESAs is reached will all the work of the last four months just die?

Jon Ralston weighs in:

ESAs have always been the fulcrum of the session, where everything was going to turn at the end. But the Democrats waited too long to have a hearing on the issue, which made the Republicans upset. The Democrats are willing to pass funding for ESAs but they don't believe they're getting enough in exchange and their priorities aren't being fulfilled. 

The last deal was a pretty good one for the Republicans - if you ask me. $45 million, about three-quarters of what Sandoval wanted with a little bit of a different funding mechanism. $45 million into statute for school choice. Eventually, the Democratic Caucus didn’t like that and that's why the session blew up.

Are ESA's going to live or die?

The bottom line the clock is running out. They have to be done my midnight Monday. I think one of two things is likely to happen: Either they will not be able to get this back together and the governor will veto a whole bunch of Democratic bills and there will be a budget passed without ESAs, which I doubt the governor will veto and keep them there.

Or they will put this back together – today probably, latest tomorrow – because again the whole process of printing the bills makes the clock very, very important here. They can put it all together. They’ll reach some kind of compromise and both sides can declare victory.

Could there be a special session?

If there is a special session, it won't be just over ESAs. I don't think the governor will do that. I think if there is a special session, it will be because they think they have a deal or a deal seems in the works on everything so the governor is willing to call a special session. There could also be a special session because they couldn’t get their work done on time. There is so much bad faith and mistrust that I don’t think anybody wants to stay around past midnight on Monday.

How did all that bad faith and mistrust come about?

The Democrats are frustrated. They don’t think they’re getting anything but what they call – and this is their quote “crumbs” from the Republicans in exchange for passing ESAs which is something that is antithetical to everything they believe in. They think it is a slow destruction of the public education system. They think they should get more for it.

On the other hand, the Republicans essentially say, ‘this was passed in 2015. The Supreme Court found the funding mechanism unconstitutional but basically said that it is legal to public money into private schools. You should just accept this and we are not going to roll back what we did in 2015.'

Both sides now think that the other side has dealt with them in bad faith.

What deal can be made?

There are still a lot of bills floating around. What can be constructed at this point? Is it the priorities of labor and trial lawyers? Is it the priorities of the Democratic Caucus? Where do those things intersect? What is the governor really willing to sign? What is he not willing to sign? Unless Democrats think they can get something significant I don't think there is a deal. 

Jon Ralston, publisher and founder, The Nevada Independent

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