With one week remaining in the 80th session, let’s talk about how everything now is really about the 81st.
As we bear witness to the familiar legislative scramble for money and the hoary debate about funding education, the table is being set for a 2021 Legislature that may very well – cliché alert – be the most consequential in history. What happens before sine die (and any special session) will feature breathless partisan effusions about who cares more about THE CHILDREN and who were the best stewards of the state’s finances. But what happens after the capital party ends and real life begins again will reverberate beyond the crass political calculation of whether the Republicans have done enough to make Democratic senators vulnerable so they can recapture the upper house and deny the majority party the upper hand in redistricting.
What is about to occur is that a rookie governor will set the stage for a session two years hence in which decades of delayed decisions will end and in which infusing hundreds of millions of dollars into education can no longer be put off.
I realize I am suffering from the biennial affliction of End-of-Session Fatigue and Irritability Syndrome. But the Democrats, in the rare position of controlling it all, have decided to play small ball rather than swing for the fences. And in so doing, they have put Steve Sisolak – and he has been complicit – of having to decide in 2021, with a long-overdue revamp of an education funding formula in place, just how much money is adequate to make Nevada’s K-12 system the envy of many rather than the mockery of all.
With apologies to Leo, all sessions are alike, but some are more alike than others. But the 2019 Legislature has shined too much unfortunate light on an exercise where deliberative process is an oxymoron, where critical decisions are left to the eleventh hour and not properly vetted and where a public policy abomination known as the two-thirds requirement paralyzes the body.
Once again, no matter the final result, the Gang of 63 has employed a Wimpy style of fiscal legislating: They will gladly put off for two years what they don’t want to pay for today. Beyond the gimmickry – punting a sales tax increase to an uncertain fate in Clark County, sweeping money from the Rainy Day Fund, spending a pittance on school safety measures no matter how much it is – the enduring problem remains.
In a state where education is generally about capricious numbers rather than substantive policies, where Band-Aids substitute for major surgery, the problem of leaving too many kids behind has only worsened with inattention to changing demographics and modern challenges. To crow about increasing per pupil funding by 2 percent or so – and that’s all it will be – misses the fundamental failure to change course.
Gov. Brian Sandoval began to turn the ship around by raising taxes more than any other governor, but by emphasizing he wanted to help kids who had fallen behind because of language or income barriers. It was thoughtful and…categorical.
Sisolak, who didn’t have the experience Sandoval had but got that the status quo was a no-go, made many promises he now can’t keep this session. But by signing a new funding formula, its infirmities aside, he has set himself up for a much larger tax increase than Sandoval enacted and one that could have far more impact when the adequacy number becomes apparent in 2021. And by then, with the funding formula in place and needing the financial blanks filled in, the excuse jar will be empty.
This has been a bipartisan failure, although the Democrats, who control everything, shoulder the majority of the responsibility. To be fair, they will pass and Sisolak will sign some new laws that will change people’s lives, from criminal defense reform to patient protection to marijuana regulation. And there is much more.
But as they blinked in other areas, including failing to pass a bill to force law enforcement to release immigration detainee information, they closed their eyes when it came to long-term education funding. The half- and quarter-measures, the illogical cobbling together of disparate parts – we have experienced this before and before and before.
Instead, as we saw with the pot commission and the so-called 704B energy bill and, alas, the funding formula, too much, too late. Lawmakers may have put an end to hospital surprise billing this session, but there is no end to surprise bills in Carson City.
The Republicans are not innocent here, either. On the Assembly side, the baker’s dozen that make up The Irrelevant Caucus were more concerned with guns and goofy news releases than having any strategy to have an actual impact. And in the Senate, knowing the Democrats might need one of them (despite a legal opinion) to raise taxes, they have become The Constitutional Scholar Caucus to stand up for an inane provision pushed by the man who would arguably become the worst governor in Nevada history, Jim Gibbons.
Gibbons used his Tax Restraint Initiative to advance his career, but what it has done is constrain lawmakers and governors from doing their jobs and empowered special interests. Instead of allowing majorities to rule, as they do on other issues, the two-thirds provision has given minorities in both houses and the moneyed interests that influence them control over tax policy.
Now, surely, that is a principle worth defending, Republicans.
The Democrats could have found a Republican or two to support a major overhaul of the tax system (Here’s a start: Don’t pass tax sunsets ever again!) to go along with the new funding formula and raise the revenue over a series of sessions to make a real difference. But Sisolak – and others – want to make sure they have all the levers of power again in 2021, when new lines will be drawn and political futures secured.
So instead we have the usual inanities – teacher union on teacher union violence, outside kibitzers who know best and an imbued practice of incrementalism.
There’s plenty of money to go around, so the rest of this session is really about who gets which pet projects. Education will get a little more funding, but those in the know know it’s not nearly enough.
Sisolak, like all of them and all of us, has an ego and wants to be seen as fulfilling his campaign and State of the State pledges. He wants to…win.
But that is about the short-term. There’s so much money that he will be able to hold a news conference with leaders of both parties and brag about infusing more money into education.
Then comes the hard part. The governor is smart enough to know what he will confront in the session before his re-election cycle, should he run. (He will be on the cusp of being a septuagenarian.)
The funding formula will be in place, the adequacy gap will be quantified. Come 2021, with apologies to Charles, Sisolak will have to decide whether it is a far far better thing he is willing to do, even if it sends him to a far far better rest than he has ever known.
Jon Ralston is the founder and editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering politics for more than 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]