Lombardo rallies support for school choice funding ahead of vote; defers on Trump
Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo sought to rally support for emergency funding boosting a school choice program in Las Vegas on Friday, while deferring on whether he would support former President Donald Trump in the 2024 election.
Lombardo spoke before dozens of school choice advocates, filling much of the St. Anne’s Catholic School gymnasium in the city’s urban core alongside students, parents and a handful of Republican legislators.
Billed as a rally, the first-term governor looked to hit back after legislative Democrats raised questions this week over his proposal to use $3.2 million in federal COVID relief funding to patch a hole in the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides need-based scholarships to certain low-income students to attend private or religious schools.
“I use the word potentially, as a matter of the written word, but actually, it’s a reality,” Lombardo said during prepared remarks. “If we’re not able to supplement Opportunity Scholarships … there will be hundreds of scholarships removed … That is unacceptable to me.”
The Interim Finance Committee — split 15-7 between Democrats and Republicans — is set to consider the move during its Wednesday meeting. But legislative Democrats signaled in a press release Friday that they may not accept the maneuver without more information, including details on just how many students would be affected by the funding difference.
But speaking to the media after the event — and after a battery of questions on worsening teacher collective bargaining negotiations in Clark County and his school choice efforts — Lombardo was hit with the national politics. If the Republican presidential primary were held today, would he vote for Trump?
“I will support whoever is successful in the primary,” he said, before leaving.
However, he also fell into hot water with the Trump camp last year after being asked in a debate if Trump was a “great president.” Lombardo said that “I wouldn’t say great, I think he was a sound president.”
Lombardo’s campaign quickly walked the comment back, saying a day later that Trump was “by all measures a great president and his accomplishments are some of the most impactful in American history.”
Opportunity Scholarship vote looms
Passed in 2015, Opportunity Scholarships are funded through tax credits that are exchanged for corporate donations, with a maximum limit set by state lawmakers.
Democrats have sought to starve the program since 2019, but sometimes agreed to send additional one-time funding — both in 2019 and 2021 — as part of legislative compromises and to ensure students with scholarships did not have to leave their schools.
But as Lombardo’s plan to vastly expand Opportunity Scholarship availability and funding was scuttled in the final days of the 2023 legislative session, so too was any discussion of additional one-time money.
Earlier this month, school choice advocates signaled the number of affected students could number in the hundreds, prompting Lombardo’s proposal to redirect the $3.2 million in unallocated federal funds.
It has allowed Lombardo to defend his track record on school choice — an issue that became a campaign staple, but yielded little legislative success after this year’s session and unified opposition from Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature.
“My administration has been fighting for school choice and Opportunity Scholarships since the day I took office — since the day I took office, okay?” Lombardo said during Friday’s rally, the second time for emphasis. “I know there's been press releases here in the last few days that say that we folded the negotiations, and there can't be anything further from the truth.”
‘Fingers are crossed’ on Clark County School District, teachers union impasse
Asked about the worsening negotiations between the Clark County School District (CCSD) and the Clark County Education Association (CCEA) over just how large teacher pay increases should be, Lombardo deferred: “That’s all part of collective bargaining at the district level.”
Still, after CCSD last week filed a lawsuit to stop potential “work actions” promised by CCEA if a deal could not be reached — a move that the district said was aimed at preemptively stopping an illegal strike before it could begin — Lombardo said the lawsuit was “probably premature.”
“Hopefully it may come to a solution, because who suffers from this right? The kids suffer from it,” Lombardo said. “The teachers themselves suffer from it, the families suffer from it. But it's important for teachers to be properly compensated, and it's their fight that they’re taking on.”
On Tuesday, CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita told reporters that work actions could mean many things, such as teachers not putting in overtime hours. Asked if a strike was completely off the table, Vellardita said no decisions had been made yet.
When pressed if he would support the “work actions” suggested by the teachers union, Lombardo said both that a strike would be illegal, but that “a work action and strike is two different things.”
“There's a lot of different things that they may explore and hopefully, hopefully, my fingers are crossed because everybody suffers as a result of that,” he said.
Reporter Rocio Hernandez contributed to this report.