By Megan Messerly, Michelle Rindels and Riley Snyder
A bill to revive the state’s stalled Education Savings Accounts program will be discussed at a joint meeting of the Legislature’s two money committees tonight, though it was not immediately clear whether a long-negotiated compromise on the divisive policy would be brought forward at the hearing.
Lawmakers and representatives of Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval have been working behind the scenes in earnest to come up with a compromise on the program, which allows parents to use public funds to support private school tuition or other qualified education expenses. It’s generally opposed by Democrats, who control both Houses of the Legislature.
Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson plans to present a conceptual amendment to the bill at the 6 p.m. hearing tonight, though no details on the substance of the bill were immediately provided. Sandoval chief of staff Mike Willden said the governor’s office is aware that Frierson plans to propose an amendment to the bill, though they do not know what is in the amendment.
“We don’t have an amendment being drafted,” said Republican Assembly leader Paul Anderson, who has been negotiating with Frierson and the governor’s office over the past few days. “And there’s certainly no compromise that’s been completed yet.”
In his January State of the State address, the governor proposed putting $60 million of the state’s budget toward ESAs, which would cover about half of the 8,600 students who have already submitted preliminary applications to the program.
The governor-sponsored measure, SB506, also moves the program out from the state treasurer’s office.
Monday’s hearing is the first time the controversial quasi-voucher program, which was created in 2015 but blocked from disbursing funds by a court, is set to be heard during the 2017 session. The issue has long simmered in the background, with the entire Senate Republican caucus declaring ahead of the session that they wouldn’t support a budget that didn’t contain some form of ESAs.
Republicans have vowed not to support a proposed 10 percent excise tax on recreational marijuana if there’s not a deal that would pass ESAs. The marijuana revenue is expected to total about $70 million in the biennium, and is a key element of the budget; Democrats need some Republicans on board to reach the required two-thirds majority.
The ESA program is the linchpin in a series of final negotiations that must take place in the next seven days before the legislative session ends. Once that happens, the Legislature is expected to move forward on the pot tax, included in SB487, which then allows the state’s budget to be finalized and approved by lawmakers.
Negotiations over the last few days have generally been in the hands of Frierson and Anderson, after a working group tackling the issue was dissolved. The Assembly, in which Democrats have nearly a two-thirds majority, is the more difficult house in which to pass ESAs, needing the support of seven Democrats to pass.
In an interview last week, Sandoval said he was still “100 percent” committed to getting the program approved.
This is a developing story and has been updated multiple times since it was published at 3:31 p.m. on May 29, 2017.
Feature photo: Hundreds of students, with parents and teachers, braved temperatures in the 20’s Wednesday morning to show their support for school choice, part of National School Choice Week, at the capital. First-grader Ciara Richards. January 25, 2017. Photo by Tim Dunn/Special to the Nevada Independent.