CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — A feud between Nevada’s political leaders threatened to derail their top legislative priorities and delay the state budget process Thursday following a stalemate in negotiations surrounding the state’s unimplemented school voucher program.
With just four days remaining in the legislative session, Democratic lawmakers in control of the Legislature and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval exchanged potentially fatal blows to each other’s policy initiatives, including Education Savings Accounts and paid sick leave.
The chain of events was set in motion when Republican lawmakers acknowledged a final political deal had not been reached by refusing to move forward one tenet of overarching budget discussions: a 10 percent recreational marijuana tax that requires bipartisan support to enact.
Democratic senators moved quickly then to pass a bill scrapping the $60 million Sandoval proposed for the voucher program, sending it instead to public schools.
“We’re out of time and it’s time to take care of our first obligation, which is public school education,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford said.
Republicans responded by voting against major budget bills in both the Senate and Assembly. They’ve threatened to do so for months if no funding was included for the program that they first passed and Sandoval signed in 2015, when Republicans controlled the Legislature.
“This budget leaves out thousands of Nevada parents and students — without a choice they have eagerly waited to participate in and many have elected to participate in. Because of that — and painfully again — I cannot and my caucus will not vote today in favor of a budget,” Republican Assembly Minority Leader Paul Anderson said before a vote.
Since the ESA program passed, roughly 2,600 families have completed applications and 7,400 others have started applications for the funds. It was challenged in court, but the Nevada Supreme Court has ruled the concept, but not the current funding mechanism, of school vouchers to be constitutional.
Finding a way to implement the program, and decide its political capital, has been a rallying point for Republicans, but a major concern for Democrats fundamentally opposed to the notion of spending public dollars on education anywhere except public schools. The impasse could send the Legislature into overtime, some lawmakers suggested Thursday.
“Some of us consider this a coupon for wealthy families, and you’re going to tell me that you’re going to keep us here with no budget because we won’t go along with you to fund to give wealthy families coupons?” Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, a North Las Vegas Democrat, said in response to similar Republican comments in the Senate. “I’ve been here for 57 extra days before; I’m willing to sit it out.”
Following the Democratic maneuver against his proposed voucher implementation, Sandoval vetoed one of Ford’s top legislative issues.
Senate Bill 196 would have mandated private businesses with 25 or more employees provide paid sick leave to workers after one year of employment.
Sandoval made no mention of the political turmoil in a veto statement of that or four other Democratic bills he axed on Thursday. He said the time-off policy would have burdened businesses, upset competition and hindered Nevada’s business-friendly reputation. He offered more insight in an emailed statement indicating he supported Republican lawmakers’ moves Thursday.
“I’m disappointed in the result and believed we had been negotiating with Democratic leadership on ESAs and their priorities in good faith,” the governor said. “I understand why the Republicans voted against the marijuana tax and any suggestion that their actions were anti-education is not correct.”
Spokeswoman Mari St. Martin declined to comment immediately on whether Sandoval would nix a budget without voucher funding.
Bringing his total veto count to 15 bills this session, Sandoval also halted a proposal aimed at blocking a luxury home development within view of Red Rock National Conservation Area outside Las Vegas. Other Thursday vetoes touched on collective bargaining agreements and credit requirements for a state college scholarship.
Lawmakers have sent Sandoval several other high-priority Democratic bills that he could kill during renegotiations, including a bid to force pharmaceutical companies to turn over information on how they set insulin prices that will become law automatically if he does not take action on it by the end of Friday.