The last day of the 2019 legislative session was full of votes on high-profile proposals, last-minute amendments and heated debates, mainly related to education.
Between casting votes and attending committee meetings, GOP state Sen. Scott Hammond offered his perspective as a member of the Republican minority — and the reason for his staunch opposition to extending the payroll tax rate. As the sponsor of the bill in 2015 that created the Education Savings Account, he also discussed his support of the Opportunity Scholarship program — another school choice initiative — and other topics.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. This is another in our series of occasional interviews in Spanish with bilingual legislators. Parts of this interview were translated from its original Spanish version.
Question (Q): What was it like working this session with a Democratic majority in both houses, and also with a Democratic governor?
Answer (A): As a Republican, it wasn’t easy, but we are here to work together, and I think our colleagues are willing to hear our concerns. I think, in the end, we did what was necessary.
Q: Why was it difficult to work with Democrats?
A: Because there are things I want to do, but they’re not priorities for them. Some frustration, but in the end, I’m happy to finish everything tonight and go home.
Q: Why are you so opposed to SB551 [a bill that extends the existing rate of the payroll tax and uses the money to support teacher raises, the Opportunity Scholarship and school safety initiatives]?
A: I oppose this because one, the two-thirds [vote requirement] — first they wanted to put it on there, then they didn’t want to put it on there. I don’t think they can play around with that.
I think that you had to have it there in the beginning. They got a [legal] opinion that said that they didn’t need it. So then they slapped the amendment on, they put the two-thirds on.
I’m opposed to this because what they’re saying is that they need money for education … we have shown them that there is plenty of money. After all the budgets closed out, fiscal analysts proved that there is about $240 million left over. So we showed them where they could fund all their priorities, have money left over. That wasn’t enough. They wanted the [MBT]. They wanted the extra $98 million.
So then we asked them, ‘what do you want it for?’ They can’t tell us. They wouldn’t tell us. If it was a priority and there was a program or there was something that they wanted to fund, they didn’t indicate it so they just wanted money for money’s sake.
I’ve had some of my colleagues on the Republican side in the Senate offer them other types of taxes to actually raise money, in some cases almost $300 million worth. And that was rejected.
And so it wasn’t about the money. It really is about just getting the MBT tax. And that’s not what I’m here for. I made a promise in 2015 that MBT would be sunsetted and today I fulfilled that promise and I’ll continue to fulfill that promise if they bring it back an hour from now, two hours from now, 11 hours from now, next week, in a special session.
Q: Some say that public resources must be kept in public schools and not in private schools. What can you say about this?
A: Let’s be clear, the state Supreme Court has actually opined on this and said that really, what we’ve always talked about is making sure children get an education, and it really doesn’t matter who was providing the education, the money should follow the children.
They said that when they had those court cases dealing with the Education Savings Accounts. When this was discussed how many years before you and I were on this Earth, they talked about education. They just said that we should take public money and educate our children. Never said that had to be in a public school setting.
So what we’re doing is we’re allowing folks to figure out what would be the best setting for their children. If it’s the public school close to their home that they’re ZIP coded for and it’s not providing the level of education or providing a setting that’s safe and secure for their child, then they should have the right to go somewhere else.
And that’s what the Opportunity Scholarship was giving them the opportunity to do, the ESA program would’ve given them the opportunity to do. So I would say we’re still educating. I would tell all those folks that only want money for public schools — I would tell them we are funding public education, we’re just allowing people to go where they want.
Q: This was your fifth session. What was different in this session compared to your previous ones?
A: I think that the management of this session was probably not as good as in past sessions. There’s a lot of work that didn’t get done in the beginning of the session and then we all of a sudden were really, really busy to the point where we didn’t get a lot of stuff done here at the end. Sort of the flow of the session was a little bit different.
Q: What were your biggest challenges in this session, was there something you didn’t have time to accomplish?
A: I don’t think about challenges. There’s a couple programs I didn’t get out of [the Senate Finance Committee] that I wish I could have. I think that some of my Democratic colleagues believe in the same programs that we were trying to save lives when it came to premature babies in the NICU unit. We believe that we could’ve provided a program for that.
There was also money that I wanted to put out there for private groups that were doing a lot of work [for] … folks that are released from prisons and we’re trying to reform them so that they don’t recidivate and go back into prisons. And there are a lot of private groups … in the state of Nevada that do it really well, and they do it a lot better than government does.
And so I wanted to make sure that we incentivize them by putting a grant together that they could access so that they could actually expand their services, and we didn’t get that through.
Q: What were some of your achievements in this session?
A: I did pass three bills and one of them allowed for the Department of Education to go out there and … give reciprocal agreements to other countries that actually give the same sort of education degrees to their citizens. So if they have an education degree from the Philippines they can come here with that same degree and teach and they don’t have to get another degree.
But we’re allowing the Department of Education to make sure that it’s very similar and it’s similar enough that they can do that. So I really appreciate my colleagues helping me pass that legislation out of both chambers and over to the governor.
And then of course [a bill giving] the Nevada Broadcasters Association a seat at the table when it came to the Homeland Security [Commission]— making sure that the broadcast media have a say in what goes on in case of emergencies, any type of emergencies. We made sure that the CEO and president of that organization … will always have a seat there. So I was really happy with that as well.