Jim Clark: Will Nevada politicians OK education tax hikes?
Special to the Bonanza
Last week I wrote about Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval’s plan to improve Nevada K-12 education.
His inspiration was Florida which, in 1998, scored as poorly as Nevada on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.
In 1999, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush instituted a series of reforms including tax credit tuition scholarships for poor students, vouchers, a rating system for schools, ending social promotion, a robust system of charter schools, and expanded online learning programs.
By 2010, Florida scored two levels higher than Nevada on the same NAEP test. Of particular interest, gains by minority students were even greater. Sandoval wants the same for the Silver State.
But how to pay for it? Aye, there’s the rub. The governor proposes to make permanent the “temporary” taxes enacted during the Gibbons administration and extended twice during Sandoval’s first term, as well as to modify Nevada’s existing business license fee law, to provide for graduated fees depending on the entity’s gross income.
The first measure would renew a revenue stream of about $560 million annually and the second is expected to raise a new $441 million per annum.
Democrats initially hailed the proposal because it would mean more money for schools. Republican state senators praised it out of loyalty to their governor.
Republican assemblymen, who are closer to their constituents and must run for reelection every two years, were either mildly supportive or outright opposed to any increase in taxes.
Let’s look at the math. To increase taxes (or make them permanent) the proposal will need 14 votes in the senate and 28 in the assembly.
There are 10 Democrat and 11 GOP senators, so if all the Democrats fall into line, the governor will need only four Republicans in that chamber.
There are 15 Democrat and 25 GOP assemblymen so it appears the governor must “peel off” 13 Republicans.
But it’s not that simple. True, Sandoval’s plan calls for increasing education funding, but his budget clearly earmarks funds to pay for education reform initiatives.
For example, $10 million for the gifted and talented program, $20 million for charter schools, $100 million for “zoom” (underperforming) schools and $50 million for middle school technology, as well as initiatives such as merit pay for excellent teachers, tax credit scholarships (vouchers) and a number of other reform agenda items that are anathema to the Nevada State Education Association (teacher union).
The way it is now, the legislature simply approves K-12 education funds for school districts, apportioned according to enrollment, with no strings attached.
As told to me by former Washoe Superintendent James Hagar, the teacher union sees the funds and demands they be spent on salaries and benefits.
If school boards resist, the union insists on arbitration, which school districts always lose because of union-oriented labor contracts.
So, with all the earmarking and quid quo pro for reform measures, will Democrats remain enthusiastic? Time and arm twisting will tell.
And how about Republicans? Stalwart conservative Sen. Don Gustavson (R-Sparks), who does not support a tax increase, told 100-plus members of Republican Men’s Club in Reno last week: “I don’t believe we can stop taxes in the senate…”
But fiery Assemblywoman Michele Fiore (R-Las Vegas) told the same audience that she and 11 of her GOP colleagues are firmly opposed to any tax increase and that she thinks she has three more who will join them in opposition.
Maybe, but who knows for sure?
Republican legislators who support the governor’s program are also wary of primary election challenges in 2016.
They are all well aware that Incline/Crystal Bay’s assemblyman, Randy Kirner (R-Reno), who supported the unpopular AB 46 school tax increase proposal, won reelection by a mere 11 votes after a spirited challenge from the right.
It is clear that any prognosis is premature. Get ready for an interesting legislative session.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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