Editorial: School funding revamp should not be rushed

With mere weeks remaining in the legislative session in Carson City the bill revamping the distribution of education funds in the state landed with a 120-page thud on Monday in the form of Senate Bill 543, which is being pushed by several Las Vegas Democrats. It doesn’t appear to bode well for rural school districts.

The bill replaces the current 50-year-old Nevada Plan with something called a Pupil-Centered Funding Plan.

The Nevada Plan is weighted to take into account the transportation costs in each county, as well as the relative wealth in each county. Thus, poorer rural counties with long commutes get more money per pupil. For example, in fiscal year 2016 the statewide average per pupil funding was $5,710, but Esmeralda County got $24,331 per pupil, while Lander got only $4,374.

In his State of the State speech at the beginning of the session, Gov. Steve Sisolak said, “I also look forward to working with legislative leadership to review the decades old Nevada Plan to ensure that tax dollars for education follow the student. We have to make sure our statewide funding formula is equitable for every student in every county.”

SB543 creates a Commission on School Funding that is directed to set a base amount of funds for each pupil in the state but then would establish a multiplier on that base for each pupil that is an English-learner, at-risk, disabled or gifted and talented. Presumably if the base per pupil funding was set at say $5,000, each one of the designated special category pupils would be funded at that amount times some multiplier — say 1.5, for example. The bill leaves the multiplier up to the commission.

The bill also redirects a number of taxes and fees to the State Education Fund that currently are distributed to the school district in the county in which the revenue is generated.

On Sam Shad’s “Nevada Newsmakers” radio interview program this past week Ruben Murillo, president of the Nevada State Education Association, said he had been briefed on the proposal then being discussed behind closed doors and said it could potentially be harmful to rural school districts. 

“I really can’t go into detail but it seems like unless there is additional funding that comes in, it is rearranging the money,” Murillo told Shad. “We need to make sure there is additional revenue that comes in that also expands the pie, not to just rearrange it.”

Murillo went on to say, “The rural counties are really in a precarious position, based on revenues. If there are not any additional increases in revenues, it is going to be a challenge for our rural school districts to continue to be able to pay their teachers and provide programs.”

As Murillo told Shad, the changes are not scheduled to go into effect until 2021.

Meanwhile, Murillo said there appears to be enough money in the current budget to fully pay for Gov. Sisolak’s promised 3 percent teacher raise, but only for the first year of the biennium. In fact, Clark County, which is scheduled to approve its annual budget in a few days, has not budgeted for any raises, and the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities has estimated Sisolak’s proposed budget falls about $107 million short of providing enough money for the teacher raises.

“So districts are going to have to find a way to have that money to support the raises, which means, potentially, layoffs and cuts in programs in order to fund that salary increase,” Murillo said.

This whole endeavor appears to be a money grab for Clark County — pulling into the statewide fund money once earmarked for local schools and increasing the per-pupil-funding for the district with the most English-learners. This should not be cobbled together in the closing days of the session without adequate public scrutiny and input. 

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Newspaper column: Opinion says two-thirds vote not needed to extend taxes

Never tell the boss no.

This past week the Legislative Counsel Bureau, the Legislature’s attorneys, told Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and the Democratic majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly what they wanted to hear: Extending taxes scheduled by law to be reduced does not require a two-thirds vote of all lawmakers, just a simple majority.

In the 21-member Senate, Democrats are one shy of the 14 votes required to meet the two-thirds threshold established by a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1994 and 1996, which states “an affirmative vote of not fewer than two-thirds of the members elected to each House is necessary to pass a bill or joint resolution which creates, generates, or increases any public revenue in any form, including but not limited to taxes, fees, assessments and rates, or changes in the computation bases for taxes, fees, assessments and rates.”

The governor pledged in his State of the State speech at the start of the legislative session that his $8.9 billion general fund budget contained no new taxes, but it does include a proposal to keep at the current rates two taxes that are scheduled to be reduced in June.Gov. Steve Sisolak gives State of the State speech. (R-J pix)

The modified business tax passed in 2015 by a two-thirds vote of lawmakers contained specific language saying the rates would be reduced in 2019 if tax revenues exceeded a certain level, which they have. A tax on vehicle registration was also approved with the caveat that it would go down in June, the start of the fiscal year.

The scheduled reduction in the modified business tax would reduce annual revenues by $48 million a year, while the vehicle tax revenue would drop by $21 million a year — a total of $138 million for the two-year budget. 

Continuing that burden on taxpayers sure sounds like it “creates, generates, or increases” public revenue. It certainly generates.

But the LCB is telling lawmakers, “It is the opinion of this office that Nevada’s two-thirds majority requirement does not apply to a bill which extends until a later date or revises or eliminates a future decrease in or future expiration of existing state taxes when that future decrease or expiration is not legally operative and binding yet, because such a bill does not change but maintains the existing computation bases currently in effect for the existing state taxes.”

Not binding? How can something approved by a two-thirds majority be undone by a simple majority? 

Asked nearly the same question in 2011, 2013 and 2015, the LCB said a two-thirds vote was necessary.

Gov. Sisolak said he appreciated the decision. 

“Regardless, I am continuing conversations with legislative leaders of both parties about supporting my budget that would keep funding at our current levels in order to help fund our schools and educators, provide health coverage under Medicaid expansion for our families, and feed our seniors through Meals on Wheels,” his statement said. “As this legislative session comes to a close, I look forward to working with the Legislature to pass a budget that reflects our core values – making sure that Nevada’s economic recovery reaches every family, that our schools prepare every child to reach their potential, and that our health care system is there for every Nevadan who needs it.”

But several media outlets quoted Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer as calling the opinion “a work of legal fiction.”

He also said he does not believe any member of the Senate Republican caucus would break ranks and give the Democrats the one vote they would need to reach the two-thirds majority threshold. He also said that passage of the tax extensions by a simple majority would doubtlessly end in litigation.

“Unfortunately, it means that the majority party has decided to not try to reach compromise or discussions on issues, and unfortunately going down this road just guarantees legal challenge,” Settelmeyer was quoted as saying.

The Nevada Supreme Court did rule in 2003 that taxes could be raised by a simple majority vote if the lawmakers failed to adequately fund education as required by the Constitution, but that opinion was reversed in 2006 when the court ruled, “The Nevada Constitution should be read as a whole, so as to give effect to and harmonize each provision.”

If lawmakers try to continue to assess those two taxes without a two-thirds majority, it certainly should end up in court.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Do the math

Don’t blame it on the tax cuts.

The Treasury Department reports that the federal deficit since the fiscal year began Oct. 1 has reached $530.9 billion.

Revenue is up 1.8 percent to $2 trillion, but spending grew 7.6% to $2.57 trillion.

Someone might want to tell all those Democratic presidential candidates that the tax cuts are not the problem. It’s the spending, stupid.

Lisa Benson cartoon



Editorial: Public records bills still pending

As the Legislature grinds its way down to sine die in a couple of weeks, there are still some pending bills that could affect your ability and that of the press to see just what our elected and appointed officials are up to by being able to access public records.

Senate Bill 287 would put some teeth in the current Nevada public records law, which requires that all public records and books, except those specifically exempted as confidential by law, must be open for inspection and copying. Despite the clear language saying the law should be liberally interpreted various agencies have manufactured excuses for not complying or simply flouted the law and basically said: If you want it, sue us.

Meanwhile in North Carolina

Should SB287 become law, if a court determines a governmental entity or the person making the decision on behalf of the governmental entity wrongly denies a records request, the requester may be awarded a civil penalty of not less than $1,000 or more than $250,000 per offense from the agency or the responsible party or both.

Some lawmakers and public officials, of course, are blanching at the $250,000 threat, but there should be room for compromise.

Richard Karpel, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, recently commented, “SB287 represents a real opportunity to enact public-records reform in Nevada. Among many other helpful provisions, SB287 would establish civil penalties for government officials who fail to comply with the Public Records Act … limit the ability of local governments and state agencies to charge excessive fees for records requests; and require government workers to help requesters focus their requests to get the information they are seeking.”

Karpel noted the press association and other members of the newly formed Right to Know Nevada testified in support of the bill in early April during a Senate Government Affairs Committee meeting.

“An army of government lobbyists lined up to testify against it,” Karpel said but the bill remains extant and is being shepherded by lawmakers sympathetic to the cause.

He said the press association is participating in a working group, which includes both supporters and opponents of the bill, which is trying to address concerns raised during the hearing.

Though opponents have attempted to gut the bill and add sweeping exemptions to the public records law, Karpel said, “Fortunately, there is a real desire among many lawmakers to pass a public records bill this session. That includes Gov. (Steve) Sisolak, who commented on his support for government transparency and the need to ensure there are ‘repercussions’ for foot-dragging state agencies in (a) recent interview with the (Las Vegas) Review Journal. So we’re hopeful we can get SB287 to the finish line before the session ends in June.”

On the obverse side of the coin is Senate Bill 224, which would exempt from the public records law the names of those who are drawing taxpayer funded pensions from the Public Employees’ Retirement System.

SB224 narrowly passed in the state Senate a couple of weeks ago on a vote of 11-10 with two Democrats joining all eight Republicans in opposing it.

State Sen. Pete Goicoechea, a Eureka Republican, said he opposed the bill because the pensions are taxpayer funded. “The people who are paying those funds have the right to know the name and the amount,” he was quoted as saying at the time. “I believe the public does have the right to know who it is and how much they are benefiting.”

Proponents of the bill have argued pensioners could be affected by identity theft, though they’ve not sighted a single instance of this occurring. Opponents argue the release of the names can help detect abuse of the system.

A tip to California’s fraud hotline once resulted in its pension system recovering more than $200,000. In a statement the California public employee pension system praised “the great value of the public’s assistance in CalPERS’ efforts to protect the state pension system from fraud, waste, and abuse.”

In another case a Los Angeles television station discovered that a police officer who was drawing a disability pension from one city was working full-time as a police officer for another agency.

These abuses will be impossible to detect should SB224 pass and become law.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Newspaper column: Not enough money to cover school spending plans

Penny wise and pound foolish?

Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak announced recently that he is donating his $163,000-a-year salary to the state’s poorest public schools.

“I asked the people of Nevada for the chance to lead this state for many reasons, chief among them being the opportunity to improve educational outcomes for every child in every classroom in the state,” Sisolak wrote in a letter to the Nevada State Board of Education. “To show my commitment to this goal, the First Lady and I are donating my net state salary back to public education. It is my sincere hope that with these donations, I can begin to fulfill my promise to our educators, families, and children and make a positive impact on our public schools.”

According to news accounts, the money would be split among the state’s 416 poorest schools — less than $400 per school.

This is the same governor who declared in his State of the State speech that he would increase the cost to build new public schools and playgrounds.

“This session I will work to return prevailing wage to public construction projects  — as it was before the 2015 session — including, and most importantly, for our children’s schools,” Sisolak declared. “Not only do prevailing wage laws support highly skilled workers in Nevada, they guarantee our children are learning in well-constructed, high quality educational facilities. Let’s do this.”

(R-J pix)

(R-J pix)

In pursuit of that largesse for state construction unions, the Assembly at the end of April passed Assembly Bill 136, which would reverse a modest rollback passed in 2015 that reduced the prevailing wage for public school and college construction to 90 percent of the prevailing wage and raised the threshold for covered projects from $100,000 to $250,000.

The prevailing wage law requires that workers on public construction jobs be paid no less than the “prevailing” wage in the area where the work is being done. The wage rate is set by the state Labor Commissioner based on a survey of contractors. The survey is so time consuming that in reality only union shops bother to comply, meaning the prevailing wage is the highest union wage.

Every Assembly Republican present voted against AB136.

Assemblyman Gregory Hafen, a Pahrump Republican, was quoted by the Carson City newspaper as saying that the state’s school districts have estimated AB136 would add $35 million to the cost of building public and charter schools. Alexis Hansen, a Sparks Republican, said it would add 25 percent to the cost of new schools.

Strangely, Nevada System of Higher Education originally said the bill would cost it $18.5 million over the next two years, but later withdrew its fiscal note during testimony before the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, saying it was too difficult to forecast what the market will be in the next two years.

Should the bill pass the Senate and be signed as promised by the governor it will snatch funds from schools that could have been spent on such things as Sisolak’s proposed 3 percent salary hikes for all state teachers, plus 2 percent merit raises in each of the next two years.

The Clark County School District is already complaining that the funding earmarked for the district is inadequate to cover those proposed raises.

The outlook was further clouded this past week when the Economic Forum, which by law sets the amount of money the Legislature may spend during the next biennium based on current taxes, said a paltry $42.8 million more than previous estimates will be available to spend. That’s less than 0.5 percent of the $8.8 billion general fund budget.

Gov. Sisolak spun the news by boasting that the report means Nevada has the “fastest growing economy in the country and continues to outpace the rest of the nation in terms of job growth.”

Assembly Republican Leader Jim Wheeler said the Economic Forum forecast will put the governor’s no new taxes promises to the test.

“In its simplest terms, the Governor and the Democrats are trying to spend more money than is available,” Wheeler said in a statement put out by the Republican leadership. “How will Democrats keep their promise to teachers and unions while still balancing the state budget?”

Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus remarked, “Simply put, there is not enough money to go around.”

It is time for our lawmakers to make some tough decisions and not be penny wise and pound foolish.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.


Harry Reid suddenly discovers the federal debt

Harry never did a flip that he couldn’t flop.

Back in 2015 Nevada Democratic senior Sen. Harry Reid, having already announced his retirement, championed and regaled a spending bill that made no pretense of trying to rein in deficit spending that would soon balloon the federal debt past $20 trillion — a bill that  blew the top off budget caps and gave President Obama a blank check.

Reid was effusive in his praise of the bill:

The bipartisan budget agreement passed today will help prevent a government shutdown and avoid a disastrous default on our nation’s obligations. It also will prevent a drastic cut to Social Security disability benefits, and a massive increase in Medicare premiums. This agreement is not perfect, no legislation is, but it accomplishes two major priorities that Democrats have supported from the very beginning. The budget agreement promotes economic growth and job creation over the next two years by providing relief from the devastating sequester cuts. It also invests equally in both the middle class and the Pentagon.

Republican Sen. Dean Heller offered a different take, “This latest budget agreement is not a long term plan or solution the American people deserve. This plan will force Congress to revisit this same exact issue in a short amount of time. It’s past time Washington addresses the needs of the people of this nation instead of continuing to punt to the next big deadline.”

Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy, like Heller, noted that the bill simply kicks the can down the road. “Our nation’s financial security is nearing a breaking point that we ignore at the endangerment of our future. Today’s so-called ‘Bipartisan Budget Act’ breaks current spending caps by $80 billion and does nothing to rein in long-term spending. Washington needs to take a long look in the mirror and make some difficult decisions based in reality,” he said.

Republican Rep. Joe Heck said in his statement that “this budget bill suspends the debt limit, giving the President a blank check until 2017, without making the significant reforms necessary to reduce spending and address the major drivers of our nearly $18.5 trillion debt.”

But now that he has retired, according to an editorial in the Las Vegas newspaper, Reid is singing a different tune.

“This may sound weird coming from a Democrat,” the editorial quotes Reid as saying this past month at a UNLV symposium. “I think we’re at a tipping point … driving ourselves into bankruptcy,” adding that the federal deficit is “going to bury us.”

The editorial helpfully points out that when Reid was elected to Congress in 1982, the national debt stood at $1.14 trillion, 34 percent of gross domestic product. When he retired in 2016, the national debt was $20.2 trillion, 103 percent of GDP. It also noted that the chief drivers of the debt are entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which now amount to more than half of federal spending.

Back in 2011, Reid scoffed at the impact Social Security was having on the debt.

“It’s not just an exaggeration that Social Security is headed for bankruptcy. It is an outright lie. …” Reid proclaimed in speech. “Leave Social Security alone. Back off Social Security. It hasn’t contributed a penny, I repeat, to the deficit and it is in great shape for the next many decades.”

Speaking of flip-flops, this was the same Harry Reid who in 1990 called the spending of the Social Security trust fund money on day-to-day expenses embezzlement, “During the period of growth we have had … the growth has been from two sources: One, a large credit card with no limits on it, and, two, we have been stealing money from the Social Security recipients of this country. …

“Maybe what we should do in conjunction with the president to really carry this conspiracy to its appropriate end, is rather than having it called the Social Security trust fund, why do we not change it and call it the ‘Social Security slush fund?’”

Social Security is expected to run out of money in 2036 and Medicare by 2026. Now the deficit is a problem, Harry?

Harry Reid talks about the nation's debt at a recent UNLV program. (R-J pix)


Editorial: Give wild horse and burro plan a chance

An unprecedented collaboration between various government agencies, animal welfare groups and ranchers has created a plan aimed at finally bringing the wild horse and burro population on the Western range under control.

The disparate groups include the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, the Humane Society of the United States, the American Farm Bureau, American Mustang Foundation, the Public Lands Council and others.

The plan calls for removing 15,000 to 20,000 wild horses a year from the range in the next three years, drastically increasing the use of temporary and permanent sterilization, moving horses to cheaper cost-effective private grazing land and promoting adoptions. The removal number would drop drastically as fertility control takes effect.

As of March, the Bureau of Land Management estimated that the population of wild horses and burros on federal lands is more than 81,951 — more than three times 26,690 the agency believes the range can sustain — and that population can grow 18 percent a year, the plan warns. Meanwhile, the BLM maintains 36,906 wild horses and burros in large pasture facilities, and 14,029 horses and burros in corral facilities at a cost of $50 million a year.

The plan calls from increasing the BLM’s total wild horse and burro management budget from the current $80 million a year to $130 million initially, but with cost declining as fertility control cuts population growth and horses and burros are adopted. The goal is to sterilize 90 percent of the animals on the range.

Nancy Perry, ASPCA’s senior vice president, told The Associated Press, “Not every advocate wants to engage with or work with those that they have been in battle with over the years. But BLM’s current polices are ineffective. If they continue on the road they’re on now, it means disaster.”

In fact, the AP reported that the plan has ignited fierce opposition from the American Wild Horse Campaign and Friends of Animals, groups that are already challenging in the courts earlier horse round-ups.

The American Wild Horse Campaign was quoted as saying, “The groups promoting this plan have been co-opted into supporting the livestock industry’s agenda for wild horses by the BLM’s vague promise to utilize undefined ‘population growth suppression’ methods. By mandating the removal of a startling 15,000 to 20,000 wild horses a year, the plan will result in the reduction of America’s wild herds to extinction levels.”

Despite the hysteria from the horse huggers, the plan is at least putting forward a rational effort to control the horse and burro population on the range. The plan estimates it will take 10 years to reach the population that the BLM says is sustainable. Currently the animals in many herd management areas are so overpopulated that they are starving and damaging water resources. Grazing land needed by cattle and other wild animals is depleted.

The plan also addresses the cost of keeping wild horses off the range.

“Every day, the BLM spends $1.82 per horse in long term holding pastures and an average of $4.99 per horse in corral facilities,” the plan notes. “A shortage of pasture facilities has forced the agency to use corral facilities for long term purposes — at more than twice the expense. … The agency estimates that each of those horses costs approximately $46,000 over the course of their lifetime. We propose that the BLM relocate corralled horses and burros, along with any additional removed horses and burros, to more cost-effective private pastures.”

The status quo is not acceptable. Give this plan a chance.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Wild horses being warehoused at Palomino Valley.