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Gov. Steve Sisolak delivers the State of the State address at the Nevada Legislature on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Lawmakers held a middle-of-the-night hearing for a measure that’s viewed as boxing in Republicans because it ties tens of millions of dollars in school safety and education spending to extending a payroll tax rate that’s set to drop down.

Lawmakers posed questions late Wednesday and early Thursday on the details of SB551, which was introduced Monday by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro. The bill would extend the existing payroll tax rate to yield an expected $98.2 million in revenue over two years and apply the money to school safety initiatives and programs serving Pre-K students, English-language learners and low-income children.

Cannizzaro cast the bill as a decision between helping “thriving” businesses by allowing a scheduled decrease in the state’s payroll tax to proceed, or to help students and teachers in a poorly ranked education system by approving millions of additional dollars.

“We have to decide whether we want to invest in the future of our state, and our long-term success, or whether we want to remain at the bottom of every list where education is concerned,”’ she said. “For me, these are not difficult choices.”

Republicans, on the other hand, have said the bill uses children as “human shields” by pressuring lawmakers to vote against school funding if they want to oppose a tax rate extension.

An amendment introduced by Cannizzaro late Wednesday would still restore some $30 million in cuts that money committees made to school safety proposals in Gov. Steve Sisolak’s budget. But it makes other changes to how the bill would allocate revenue from the extended tax.

It would cut new funding to Zoom and Victory school programs to roughly half of what Cannizzaro proposed earlier in the week, to a total of $15.45 million. It would increase pre-K appropriations from $4 million to $16 million over the biennium and allocate $8 million over the biennium to the state’s Read by Grade 3 program for hiring learning strategists at every school.

Finally, it would allocate another $12.6 million over the biennium toward so-called SB178 funds, which were authorized by a 2017 bill and dedicate more money to low-performing students who don’t already attend a Zoom or Victory school.

The amendment also removes language allowing surplus funds collected by the “More Cops” sales tax to go to the Clark County School District for the hiring and equipping of school police officers. Cannizzaro said all More Cops funding is needed by the agencies that currently receive the revenue.

Funds to support the spending would come from eliminating a scheduled decrease in the state’s Modified Business Tax — a provision set in place by a 2015 law that requires the rate to drop if certain taxes overperformed expectations. Legislative Democrats earlier this month received an opinion from the Legislative Counsel Bureau stating that a two-thirds vote wasn’t needed to extend the tax rate — a stance Republicans have threatened to sue over and have warned could spark a “constitutional crisis.”

Cannizzaro flatly denied that assertion.

“Constitutional questions don’t exist,” she said at the end of the hearing. “They just don’t.”

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