Lawmakers vote to cut millions from school safety and higher ed budgets, raise per-pupil school funding

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels

Legislative money committees have made some major cuts to the governor’s K-12 and higher education budgets as they try to address a shortfall some say is at least $100 million and ensure school districts have enough money to deliver a teacher pay raise the governor promised.

Votes this week in the budget committees cancelled proposed funding for “capacity building initiatives” at UNR and UNLV, and cut three-quarters of the $10 million destined for the Knowledge Fund, which helps recruit highly specialized faculty who can develop new technologies that can be commercialized.

On the other hand, the committees preliminarily moved to direct marijuana excise tax revenue — projected to total $120 million over the biennium — entirely to the Distributive School Account to raise per-pupil funding amounts. The move will raise the per-pupil basic support guarantee by $120 in the first year of the biennium and $124 in the second year.

But the decision to redirect the marijuana money to basic instruction creates strain for the education-related programs the money was originally destined to support in Gov. Steve Sisolak’s budget. Marijuana money was initially meant to help keep the Millennium Scholarship afloat for another biennium at a cost of $31 million, and to fund $54 million in school safety initiatives.

Sisolak said he hopes that there will be enough money to keep those programs going at the levels outlined in his budget. Budget committee chairwomen Joyce Woodhouse and Maggie Carlton committed to fully funding the Millennium Scholarship, perhaps with a one-time appropriation. A hearing on that account is expected as soon as Friday, Carlton said.

On Thursday, however, the money committees pared the school safety budget by $30 million, or more than half. They also scaled back a plan to expand the school social worker force, as well as a budget to hire more school police, dramatically cut back a $25 million fund to support school security infrastructure upgrades and eliminated a rural school threat assessment training budget item.

Carlton explained at the meeting that it takes time to onboard school social workers, meaning schools may not be able to fully use a large boost in social worker funding. And she said the large Washoe and Clark county school districts will not receive infrastructure funds because they can raise money for capital improvement projects through bonding in Clark County and a sales tax increase in Washoe County.

For her part, Woodhouse said “all of the things that were in the recommendations are all really good things to do, but for some of them the timing is not right.”

Republicans voted against some of those cuts, which affect programs recommended by an interim committee on school safety that then-Gov. Brian Sandoval convened following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. They also took to social media to express frustration.

“We need to keep our schools safe. These cuts will put our students at risk,” Republican Sen. Heidi Gansert said in a tweet.

Republican Sen. James Settelmeyer tweeted: “At a time that the Democrat party is clamoring for more gun control they cut 30.5 million dollars from [school] safety. I do not support making our schools unsafe.”

Cuts in the higher education system will affect capacity building initiatives, which are schools’ attempts at growth and expansion in strategic economic sectors and were initially proposed to entail multi-year, multi-million dollar investments from the state. In statements to The Nevada Independent, both schools raised concerns that eliminating the funding could affect their recently achieved Carnegie Tier 1 research university status.

UNLV’s Health for Nevada initiative called for developing the health care workforce and envisioned hiring 165 new professors in the field to address a shortage of doctors and other professionals. University representatives said they understood lawmakers faced tough decisions to balance the budget, but said the rollback would adversely affect the program.

“UNLV’s Health for Nevada Initiative is critical to addressing the health-care-related research needs of Nevadans,” the university said in a statement. “This decision will both delay the build out of the program and end some components … We will continue to work with state leadership to advance funding priorities that benefit all Nevadans."

UNR is executing an advanced manufacturing initiative to help grow that sector in Northern Nevada. The initiative called for recruiting 40 new faculty members with expertise in science and engineering.

While he said the cuts could hurt UNR’s status, UNR President Marc Johnson said “we are well aware of the demands that our elected leaders are facing as they continue to craft a comprehensive budget for the entire state, and we appreciate the overall funding they are providing our institution.”

Lawmakers did approve funding for capacity building initiatives at the other institutions, such as a request from Truckee Meadows Community College for funds to add more courses in English, math and science. Assembly Ways and Means Chairwoman Maggie Carlton said she didn’t want to gut funding for the community colleges and Nevada State College because “I look at those institutions as our gateway into higher education.”

Public commenters at a Thursday joint Senate-Assembly budget committee thanked lawmakers for their action on the marijuana money, which will “supplement” existing per-pupil funding rather than “supplanting,” or simply reducing the state’s obligation to fund K-12 education using the general fund.

But they pointed criticism at lawmakers for a longstanding budget maneuver involving hotel tax revenues collected through IP1, a petition submitted by voters to lawmakers and approved in 2009 under the auspices of raising money for schools. Since 2011, the revenues collected through IP1 have been sent to education, but the state has reduced its general fund contributions to education by an equivalent amount, meaning schools get no net benefit from IP1.

Representatives from education advocacy groups Educate Nevada Now and HOPE for Nevada sharply criticized lawmakers’ decision to continue this “supplanting” maneuver for the coming biennium, as recommended by the governor, which is expected to amount to nearly $400 million in the next two years.

“Whether you’ve created this or inherited this, you all had a choice to fix this today for our students, and I’m sorry that you made that choice that you did today,” said Caryne Shea of HOPE for Nevada.

Riley Snyder contributed to this report.


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