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The Clark County Government Center as seen on Thursday, April 27, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The Clark County Commission on Tuesday approved a one-eighth of a cent sales tax increase that could bolster certain education and social service programs, although exactly how the money will be spent has not been determined.

The 5-2 vote comes after state legislators this year passed AB309, which gave county commissioners the power to increase the sales tax and fund initiatives related to early childhood education, adult education, truancy reduction and teacher recruitment and retention. Commissioners Lawrence Weekly and Larry Brown cast the opposing votes.

The motion approved by commissioners directs county staff to come back in 30 days with a program of grants, which potential recipients — such as the Clark County School District — would need to apply for while setting related measurable goals. The ordinance also comes with a June 2021 sunset.

Commissioner Jim Gibson argued that approving the sales tax increase should be hinged on setting goals and measuring outcomes — in other words, fiscal accountability tied to progress. County officials estimate the one-eighth cent sales tax increase would generate a little more than $50 million. (AB309 had given commissioners the ability to raise the sales tax by as much as a quarter cent, which would have yielded about $108 million.)

“It makes no sense just to pass a tax and throw money at education or any other thing for that matter,” he said. “It is important for us to do something that’s targeted.”

In July, the Clark County Commission and Clark County School Board of Trustees held a joint meeting to begin dialogue about how the sales tax revenue could be used. Nothing was set in stone at that meeting, though.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara addressed commissioners Tuesday and asked them to support a sales tax increase, saying it would increase “collaboration” between the county and school district.

But Weekly said the tax could burden low-income residents and expressed concern that priorities for how the money would be spent hadn’t been “narrowed down” yet. Brown, who cast the other nay vote, questioned whether the school district was ready to implement programs potentially funded by the tax increase and, ultimately, whether it was local government’s responsibility to fund education.

Brown called the tax a “slippery slope” that could lead to similar requests outside the county’s primary responsibilities.

“Do I want to fix education? Do I want to support education? Absolutely,” he said. “My three children went through the Clark County School District. Love it. But what is the role of the county? That’s where I have a lot of problems. It’s the state’s responsibility. It’s the Legislature’s responsibility. Create a system to appropriately fund education and not put the burden on the county to go raise taxes.”

Commissioner Tick Segerblom, a former state lawmaker, said legislators from Clark County overwhelmingly supported the tax increase but didn’t have a two-thirds majority in Carson City to make it happen, hence the baton being passed to local government.

“At the end of the day, the reason we’re here is because the Clark County legislators felt there was a need for this money to be raised and spent on these issues and they didn’t have the votes seriously to do it,” he said. “There is a stranglehold outside Clark County by people who refuse to support the things we support.”

The draft ordinance included language that would have dictated half of the tax proceeds go to the Clark County School District and the other half to social service programs. Commissioners, however, nixed that section in the motion they ultimately passed after expressing concern about the school district’s ability to effectively use all of that money. Instead, the district will need to apply for grant funding.

There won’t be an immediate infusion of revenue, though. Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick said the sales tax increase would go into effect in January, meaning the first batch of revenue likely wouldn’t be available until April.

Democrat Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson sponsored AB309 a few weeks before the end of the legislative session — a time when the Clark County School District was raising concerns about not having enough money to pay for Gov. Steve Sisolak’s promised teacher raises. The legislation, which was seen as another way to boost education funding in Southern Nevada, passed on party-line votes with Republicans opposed. 

A Guinn Center report released in May highlighted some red flags with AB309, including that it was making school districts even more reliant on local funds. 

Commissioner Justin Jones, who proposed the motion to approve the sales tax increase, struck an optimistic tone about its potential.

“I’m definitely in favor of this sales tax increase because it will have a tremendous impact on our community here,” he said.

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