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The Nevada State Senate as seen on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 in Carson City, Nev. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Senate Democrats proposed an amendment late Sunday night that would allocate some of the funding generated by a proposed extension of the state’s payroll tax rate toward a private school scholarship program Republicans favor and teacher pay raises promised by Gov. Steve Sisolak.

It’s part of an effort to get at least one Senate Republican to vote in favor of an extension of the current tax rate, a maneuver expected to bring in roughly $98 million over the two-year budget cycle. So far, Republicans have refused to commit to voting in favor of such a bill, and if Democrats don’t get a two-thirds majority, they are on uncertain ground that a law extending the tax will hold up in court.

“I think we’re hopeful that they are going to have an opportunity to review the amendment that we proposed tonight and tomorrow we will hope that they will vote with us,” Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro said.

The amendment, presented late Sunday night in the Senate Finance Committee and adopted by the committee on a party-line 5-3 vote, would change where the education funding flows from what Senate Democrats had initially proposed. It would allocate $16.7 million for school safety, $72 million for teacher pay raises statewide and $9.5 million for the need-based Opportunity Scholarship program, which helps low- and middle-income families pay for private school tuition.

The inclusion of Opportunity Scholarships — which is backed by business donations made in exchange for a tax credit — could sweeten the pot for Republicans, who have named the program as one of their highest priorities and would have to vote against the program to oppose the payroll tax rate extension.

But Republicans, asked about the proposal as they walked onto the Senate floor, reiterated their opposition to the extension of the tax and their belief that there is more than enough money in the current budget to fund education priorities. They were not made aware of the amendment until late Sunday.

“A lot of things change in a few hours but not this. I think that even in the last few hours this hasn’t changed,” said Republican Sen. Scott Hammond. “We’re all pretty resolute.”

The $72 million for teacher pay raises includes $53 million for the Clark County School District. The district had long complained that it had not been allocated enough money in the state’s K-12 budget in order to afford the pay raises, and needs at least another $46 million in the upcoming school year to avoid budget cuts.

Enacting the teacher pay raises is a key demand of the Clark County Education Association, which took the unusual step of endorsing Republican Keith Pickard over a Democrat for a state Senate seat in 2018 and is threatening to strike if lawmakers don’t provide enough funding. Pickard’s win means Democrats are one vote shy of a super-majority that would allow them wide latitude to add taxes.

Earlier on Sunday, lawmakers in both houses voted unanimously to approve the state’s K-12 budget bill, which allocates an average of $6,218 per pupil in the first year and $6,288 in the second.

Cannizzaro said the bill would also be stamped with a two-thirds majority requirement, something that Republicans have long complained about in the wake of a legal opinion from legislative lawyers saying that the measure could pass without two-thirds support. However, Senate Republicans said earlier this week that the inclusion of a two-thirds stamp on the bill would not be enough to earn their support.

Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson declined to lay out their Plan B should they fall short of two thirds.

“There’s 24 hours,” Frierson said. “There’s probably going to be three or four contingency plans depending on what happens.”

Frierson framed putting a two-thirds stamp on the bill as an “olive branch” to Republicans but noted that it’s ultimately up to leadership how they pass measures. He framed the two-thirds note as something legislative legal counsel has done to assist lawmakers in deciding how to move forward on their votes and suggests how lawmakers should, as opposed to can, pass a measure.

“Whether we needed to or not, it doesn’t relieve us, I think, of … an interest in having a bipartisan effort moving forward on big, big issues to the extent that we can,” he said.

The latest version of Cannizzaro’s bill allocates the funding toward basic school operational expenses where the earlier version had focused more on ancillary expenditures. The previous version called for:

  • $15.4 million to Zoom and Victory school programs at schools with high numbers of low-income and English language learner students
  • $8 million for the Read by Grade 3 program
  • $12.6 million to SB178 “weighted” school funds
  • $30 million for school safety initiatives that had been reduced by budget committees
  • $16 million for pre-kindergarten programs

Updated 6-3-19 at 1:39 a.m. to include additional information from Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro.

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