IndyTalks: Legislative leaders on elections, K-12 funding, housing and more
More than six weeks into the 2023 session of the Nevada Legislature, the state’s top-ranking Democratic and Republican lawmakers disagreed over requiring voter ID and moving up mail voting deadlines, but found common ground in calling for more accountability and results from K-12 schools.
Democratic leaders also defended major criminal justice reforms that have been panned by Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo as “soft on crime,” while leaders from the two parties staked opposite positions on a Lombardo plan to put more funds in state savings that Democratic leaders say could be used to address Nevadans’ more pressing needs such as mental health care and housing.
The comments came as part of IndyTalks, a wide-ranging, 90-minute discussion with Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), Senate Minority Leader Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) and Assembly Minority Floor Leader P.K. O'Neill (R-Carson City) hosted by The Nevada Independent at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center on Tuesday night.
Those leaders also provided a preview of debates likely to take place later this session in key policy areas — including Cannizzaro signaling opposition to a proposed increase in the property tax cap that she said could have a negative effect on families, and conversations about the Oakland A’s prospective move to Las Vegas.
But in spite of leaders’ disagreements, they each emphasized the open lines of communication between them, including weekly meetings and discussions during committee hearings.
“As much as people might want to think there's conflict, I think we all genuinely like each other,” Yeager said. “And we probably talk more than I would say our predecessors, at least since I've been in the building.”
Below are highlights from the discussion. Click on the links to jump to specific topics:
- K-12 education
- Higher education
- Criminal justice
- State lottery
- Property taxes
- State savings
- Economic development
- Child care
- Colorado River
- Legislative process
Yeager broadly shut down the possibility of any compromise regarding changes to the mail balloting process, reiterating a position from prior to the session.
The Democrat described proposals supported by Lombardo and Republican lawmakers to require voters to show ID to vote as a “solution in search of a problem,” arguing that Nevada’s elections are already safe and secure. Democratic opposition to the idea comes despite support for voter ID from a majority of Nevada voters, according to a February Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights poll.
He also touted Nevada as a national model for conducting elections, highlighting recent efforts to expand voting access in the state, including a 2021 bill approved by Democrats that permanently expanded a pandemic-era policy to send all registered voters a mail ballot during each election.
“If there’s some proposals that don’t chip away at those core things, I think there’s room to talk,” he said.
But O’Neill disagreed with the notion that Nevada is a “model” when it comes to elections, arguing that Nevada’s slow process of rolling out election results made the state “more of an embarrassment when it took weeks later to actually validate who was elected to a position.”
Under state law, election officials must count all mail ballots postmarked by Election Day and received up to four days after, which in recent election cycles has meant tens of thousands of ballots left to be counted in the days after the final votes have been cast.
Seevers Gansert argued for a Republican-led proposal to require all ballots be received by the close of polls on Election Day as a way to speed up the process of getting final results.
“I think we have safe and fair elections,” she said. “But I do think that we need to be able to get the ballots on time, so that we aren't the last ones in the nation to be able to announce our results.”
Still, Yeager pushed back on the idea that the counting process needed an overhaul, calling it “a blessing that it takes a long time here because that means we're a purple state, and we're a competitive state, we're a state that matters.”
“Accuracy takes time. Fairness takes time. And I think that's a blessing for the state,” he said.
Under his proposed budget, Lombardo called for injecting $2 billion more into the state’s K-12 education system, an amount that would increase per-pupil funding by more than $2,000. The proposed funding boost comes as the state has extra cash on hand.
“We’re seeing increased revenues, and that money flows to education where it should be,” Cannizzaro said.
Yeager acknowledged that even with an additional $2 billion, Nevada’s per pupil funding would still fall short of the national average. In 2020, Nevada’s per-pupil funding amount, $9,548 excluding federal funds, lagged behind the national average by almost $4,000.
Lombardo’s funding pledge also came with a message that he would not accept “a lack of funding as an excuse for underperformance,” along with calls for “systematic” governance change for K-12 education in 2025 “if we don’t start seeing results.”
Yeager said he couldn’t speak directly to Lombardo’s comments, but said “all of us expect accountability and transparency.”
Democrats have announced they want to hear directly from the state’s 17 school district superintendents as well as the State Public Charter School Authority on how they are planning to use the additional funds to increase student achievement. That includes hearings with school leadership, which have been scheduled for Saturday morning and next Friday, as well as written reports.
“We've heard loud and clear from people in this state that if we're going to be voting for additional money for education, that money has to go to education in a meaningful way,” Cannizarro said.
The legislative leaders also discussed a proposal to reinstate a policy to hold back students who aren’t reading at grade level by the end of the third grade. The policy was part of the Read by Grade 3 program passed in 2015 under Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, but was later stripped out of state law under Democratic leadership.
Discussion over the policy reemerged amid concerns over students’ reading proficiency, especially coming out of the pandemic. According to data from the Nevada Department of Education, only 44 percent of elementary school students are proficient in English Language Arts.
On the campaign trail, Lombardo called for restoring funding to the Read by Grade 3 program.
A bill by Seevers Gansert and six other GOP senators, SB149, would prohibit the automatic promotion of students who are “deficient in reading before completing grade 3” as well as students who are “deficient in mathematics before completing grade 5.” It also requires schools to prepare a plan to improve the proficiency in mathematics for pupils enrolled in an elementary school, similar to existing requirements for reading improvement.
“If you think about the trajectory of a child and how they can succeed, if they can read by three, it's completely different than if they can't,” Seevers Gansert said.
A recent study by Wheelock Educational Policy Center at Boston University looked at a 2013 Mississippi policy that retains third students who score below a set threshold on a state reading exam. The study found the policy “led to substantial and sustained improvement in literacy outcomes for Mississippi students who repeated the third grade in 2015-16, particularly for Black and Hispanic/Latinx students.”
A 2019 independent audit of Nevada’s Read by Grade 3 program found that during one school year, 87 percent of school districts reported a decrease in the number of third-grade students identified as reading-deficient.
Cannizzaro said she was open to talking about reinstating the retention requirement for students who are behind on reading. Meanwhile, Yeager cited the historic number of educators in the Assembly and said he would defer to their expertise.
O'Neill said he thinks the Read by Grade 3 program is important, but suggested there should be a plan to help third-grade students who are behind in reading improve.
As lawmakers consider for a second session a potential constitutional amendment that would remove the Board of Regents — which governs the Nevada System of Higher Education — from the Nevada Constitution in SJR7, Yeager said he was supportive of that effort.
Lawmakers initially sought to remove the regents from the Nevada Constitution with Ballot Question 1 in 2020, a measure that was narrowly rejected by voters. Both then and since, legislators have called for increased legislative control of the higher education system, outside and beyond the power of the purse already exercised by the Legislature.
“To be quite candid, I think [Question 1] was a very confusing ballot question, so I think that's why you're seeing another crack at that,” Yeager said. “And that's something that's got to be changed by the voters, so I'm supportive of that effort, because the voters should have their say.”
Still, Yeager also said lawmakers were “looking for outcomes in higher education,” and said that higher education curricula needed to more closely align with the state’s strategic workforce development goals.
“I'll just say that's not really just a higher education conversation, that's an entire education system conversation,” Yeager said. “Because I think for too long, we sort of view those as two very distinct and separate systems, but they should be working together.”
Leaders split on the possibility of rent control, with Yeager supportive of stabilizing rent prices for seniors and vulnerable populations, while O’Neill and Seevers Gansert opposed the idea of a statewide policy for capping rent prices.
On Tuesday, Assemblywoman Claire Thomas (D-Las Vegas) introduced a bill (AB362) that would institute a statewide cap on rental rate increases.
But Yeager opposed a statewide cap on rents, saying it would not be wise to cap rents broadly beyond specific populations on fixed incomes. Seevers Gansert also cautioned that rent control could dampen housing supply by leading to decreased investment by property owners.
Beyond rent control, the leaders generally highlighted the need to build out additional affordable housing. Seevers Gansert pointed to bipartisan support for the $500 million Home Means Nevada initiative — a program established under Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and meant to fund new affordable housing developments, land acquisitions, home preservation and other housing projects using federal relief funds from the American Rescue Plan.
Yeager said this session is also seeing the reemergence of housing bills that failed during the 2021 session, such as measures increasing protections for tenants, after housing discussions during that session ultimately coalesced around a single bill, AB486, focused on preventing evictions and distributing rental assistance.
But he pushed back on the notion that the Nevada Association of Realtors — the most prolific donor to state lawmakers — holds extra influence over housing bills, saying that lawmakers listen to various industry groups, including the Nevada State Apartment Association, and housing advocacy groups.
“We get lobbied all the time on things, and I don't think they have undue influence,” he said.
Yeager and Cannizzaro pushed back on claims from Republicans (including Lombardo) that AB236 — a major criminal justice reform bill from the 2019 session meant to reduce the prison population through decreased penalties for nonviolent crimes and increased access to diversion programs — led to an increase in crimes.
During his State of the State address, Lombardo promised to bring forward an omnibus crime bill that would make “it harder — not easier — to commit a crime in the state.”
Though Yeager said he has not seen the bill yet, he defended the 2019 bill, highlighting bipartisan support for “evidence-based” reforms included in the bill and the extensive process that went into crafting the bill to lower the incarcerated population and ensure the state would not have to spend significant funds on new prisons.
“I understand that on the campaign trail, we sometimes say things, but I have yet to see anybody bring any credible evidence to me that what we did in that bill increased crime in the state,” he said.
Seevers Gansert and Cannizzaro both said there was a need for the Legislature to tackle the ongoing fentanyl crisis, which has involved a surging number of opioid overdose deaths.
Still, the two sides remain far apart on a solution to the problem. Four different bills proposing increased penalties for fentanyl trafficking have been introduced this session, including one sponsored by each Senate leader. Cannizzaro’s bill (SB343) would establish the threshold for “low-level trafficking” at 4 grams of fentanyl, while a bill from Seevers Gansert (SB128) would lower that threshold to 4 milligrams — one-thousandth of the amount proposed in Cannizzaro’s bill.
“We really need to bring it down to where we have zero tolerance, because it just kills people,” Seevers Gansert said.
Assemblyman Cameron "C.H." Miller (D-North Las Vegas) and Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) introduced a proposed constitutional amendment last week that would create a statewide lottery with the revenue from ticket sales funding youth mental health programs in Nevada.
A prohibition against a state lottery was put in the Nevada Constitution in 1864 when it became a state. Yeager said he thinks it’s time for Nevada to have a state lottery, especially with many Nevadans already driving to Arizona and California to buy lottery tickets.
“Why are we funding California and Arizona education when we could keep that money here?” Yeager asked. “So I think there's a responsible way to do it, and that's why we're starting the process.”
But other similar proposals in the past have not gone far, and have been met with strong opposition from Nevada’s gaming industry.
If the measure, AJR5, is passed by the Legislature in 2023, it must also be passed next session and go before voters in 2026 before the proposed amendment becomes effective.
“The voters deserve to weigh in on it and they haven't had the chance since the constitution was passed,” Yeager said. “Let's give them that chance.”
But O’Neill wasn’t a fan of the idea.
“I don't see the need for the lottery. It's years out. We've got a great gaming system here. This is where I will say we do have the gold standard in gambling, everybody else wants to emulate us,” he said.
In 2005 and amid a pre-recession surge in housing prices, state lawmakers capped annual property tax increases at 3 percent for residential properties and 8 percent for other properties. This session, lawmakers are considering a bill (SB96) that would revise the property tax formula to have a 3 percent floor with increases built-in and based on the Consumer Price Index.
Seevers Gansert said she would oppose that bill, noting she was in the Legislature in 2005 and voted to create the caps and feared that a 3 percent property tax floor could quickly push seniors and others on fixed incomes out of their homes.
“You literally could tax people out of their homes, it will make your own property more expensive, and will make rental properties more expensive,” she said.
Cannizzaro also sounded notes of caution over changes to the property tax formula.
“I don't know that now is the time that we should be talking about how do we raise property taxes, that's really hard for everyday Nevadans,” she said.
Yeager opposed a proposed tax policy change from Lombardo to increase the threshold for the Commerce Tax from $4 million to $6 million in annual revenue.
“I think this idea that somehow we would give the largest corporations in the state a tax break, to me, that's the wrong approach,” he said.
Saving in the Rainy Day Fund
Though the Democratic and Republican leaders disagreed over Lombardo’s proposal to put more in state savings, both sides pointed to emergent needs that will need to be addressed in the short term — including state employee pay and mental health services.
Lombardo proposed during his State of the State address to boost the state’s Rainy Day Fund (used to stabilize state government operations during emergencies) to a new record high of around $1.6 billion — well beyond the current record high of more than $900 million, which is the maximum amount allowed under state law.
Seevers Gansert and O’Neill both expressed support for such an increase, highlighting the need for relying on those savings during economic downturns.
“It's ridiculous when we've had the downturns that we've had to make cuts, and then you come back when the economy's coming back, to regain, to claw back what you just cut,” O’Neill said. “So you're really never making any forward progress. That ship is sinking like the Titanic.”
But Yeager said there were more pressing needs, saying that he heard from Nevadans who talked about the need to invest in youth mental health services and education. He also raised the question of whether it was already “raining right now for certain Nevadans.”
“We have two and a half to three times more money than we've ever had in a Rainy Day Fund. And yes, COVID was the rainiest of days, and I pray that we never end up in that circumstance again, but I think we have to be responsible to say let's actually fund a state to a level that our constituents want and demand,” he said. “We've never done that as a state and we have a chance to do it now.”
Earlier this month, Nevada granted Tesla $330 million in tax abatements over the next 20 years as part of the company’s planned $3.6 billion expansion of its Nevada Gigafactory.
The move reopened debate over the state’s use of economic incentives and abatements to attract new businesses or grow existing ones — including from Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas), who said the Legislature should have more say over the abatement process.
O’Neill said that lawmakers gave abatement decision-making powers to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development because the Legislature only meets every other year, and “I don't feel like being called back every three months to approve another tax abatement.” He added that the tax abatement process should more closely involve the jurisdiction affected by the new or expanding business.
Yeager said he agreed with O’Neill that the Legislature would not be able to have final decision-making power over abatements, but said he wished that lawmakers had more oversight of the process. Still, he said abatements were a necessary evil for the state to diversify its economy beyond tourism and gaming.
“That's the conundrum that we're in,” he said. “We want to compete. But we have to do tax abatements to compete.”
But Yeager balked at the idea of using tax dollars to help fund a stadium for Major League Baseball’s Oakland A’s.
“I think the potential of bringing Major League Baseball to Las Vegas is amazing. I mean, I can't imagine having a stadium and a professional team there,” he said. “But we'd have to look at whether that would make sense long term for the state. And I just don't know what those contours would be at the moment.”
Last year, Nevada allocated $160 million of its federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) dollars to lower the cost of child care, including $50 million spent to expand a child care subsidy program.
There are only 445 licensed child care centers in Southern Nevada and 195 licensed child care providers in Washoe County to provide for a statewide population of roughly 177,000 Nevada children younger than 5 years old. Experts say they are unsure how many centers are needed, but note that many ZIP codes have up to three children waiting for every slot available for early childhood education.
Cannizzaro said the use of federal ARP dollars was a “very effective use of the money,” and said the state should look at both direct subsidies to families to help pay for child care, as well as subsidies for child care facilities to ensure that they have enough employees and proper learning materials.
Seevers Gansert said she would be open to looking into state funding for child care subsidies.
“I don't know what it's going to add up to, but I know a lot of families are struggling with inflation and housing costs again, and child care is something they have to have to be able to work,” she said. “So I'm open to that conversation, because we need to really make sure our families are safe and secure.”
Federal water managers announced last year that Arizona, Mexico and Nevada would have less water to use in 2023 because of the critically low water levels in two large reservoirs in the Colorado River basin.
Though the cuts will not affect Nevada in the short term, it highlighted how extreme drought has brought renewed attention to the crisis affecting a watershed that provides 40 million people with drinking water and agriculture.
Nevada lawmakers took steps in 2021 to ban the use of ornamental or nonfunctional turf in Southern Nevada, and this session are looking to a bill (AB220) that aims to push septic tank users to get hooked up to municipal sewer systems (as septic tank systems require more water to function).
Stil, Yeager said that without an influx of water into Southern Nevada, those policies are “small steps” and that the region will eventually need to renegotiate the Colorado River Compact, the 1922 agreement that established water allotments for the watershed but has since been criticized for over-allocating available water.
Any such renegotiation of the compact would take place on the federal level, outside of the Legislature, Yeager said.
“I don't have any great hope out there other than we've got to conserve, and I think we have to continue to look at desalination efforts and invest where it makes sense,” he said.
Cannizzaro pointed to staffing issues affecting the Legislature as part of the reason why Monday’s deadline for legislator bill introductions was postponed until next week (a delay that also happened in the 2021 session). She said she wasn’t worried about moving the bill introduction deadline so that legislative legal staff could focus on bills that are “just taking a little bit more time to figure out details and to make sure that we get it right.”
Seevers Gansert suggested that lawmakers prefile more bills, a legal process through which state lawmakers can request proposed legislation before the start of the legislative session (228 bills were prefiled ahead of the 2023 session).
Yeager similarly noted that lawmakers could do a better job of communicating with legislative legal staff after filing their bill draft requests as to exactly what they want out of a proposed bill.
“I think it's kind of human nature, you see a deadline, you tend to wait, we could all do a better job of doing that,” he said.
O’Neill suggested reducing the number of bill draft requests available to legislators, which range from six to 20 depending on the legislative chamber and seniority.