CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Rep. Jason Frierson made history Monday by becoming Nevada’s first black Assembly Speaker as the state’s 63 lawmakers opened their legislative session focusing on issues ranging from the state budget to the future of an unimplemented law that would give parents state funding to help pay for private school.
Frierson, D-Las Vegas, was elected to lead the Legislature’s lower chamber as lawmakers started work in the session that lasts until June 5.
It also marked the first time that both the state Assembly and Senate will be led at the same time by black legislators. Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, was also officially elected to head his chamber on Monday.
The two leaders were chosen by their Democratic peers after last November’s election, when voters elected a majority of Democrats to the Legislature and swung control from the previously Republican dominated Assembly and Senate.
Democrats hold an 11-9-1 majority in the 21-member state Senate, and a 27-15 majority in the 42-member Assembly.
Like leaders in other statehouses controlled by Democrats this year, Nevada Democrats portray themselves as beacons of their party following a bruising presidential election in a nation where Republicans now control 32 state legislatures, Congress and the White House.
“At a time when political rhetoric and hyper-partisanship have defined politics in D.C., we have an opportunity to show the country what a citizens’ Legislature and a bipartisan government is capable of accomplishing,” Frierson said in a speech to Assembly members and their families.
Lawmakers slapped each other’s backs and shared congeniality Monday that will become rarer as they negotiate Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s $8.1 billion state spending proposal, review state taxes and take a closer look at newly legalized recreational marijuana during the four-month session.
They have proposed 864 bills so far.
Frierson and Ford said the majority party will champion public schools, renewable energy, criminal justice reform, equal pay for equal work and raising the minimum wage.
Ford said lawmakers will also work to undo labor laws passed under the Republican majority in 2015, including one that allowed certain public contractors to pay workers 10 percent below the average wage and benefits in a given region.
Democrats have not yet outlined specific financial priorities or forged a united front on the future of Nevada’s school voucher program Republicans passed as a parental choice initiative in 2015.
The Education Savings Account program would provide public funds of up to about $5,000 per child for families to spend on K-12 education outside the public school system.
The Nevada Supreme Court in September struck down a plan to fund the program with dollars appropriated to public schools.
Ford said the Democrats’ budget plan will leave no room for school vouchers.
Other Democrats have floated the possibility of limiting eligibility to low-income families. They could also propose repealing the program altogether, but any change must receive Sandoval’s approval.
Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, D-North Las Vegas, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, said he expects legislation will center on altering the formula used to decide per-pupil funding.
“The focus is truly to spend public dollars on public education,” Thompson said. “With that said, a voucher does not exist.”