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Gov. Steve Sisolak at a signing ceremony for SB299, a bill clearing the way for districts to buy more electric school buses, on May 23, 2019. Photo by Michelle Rindels.

Environmental groups are celebrating after Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a bill that authorizes funds for Nevada school districts to invest in electric buses.

Sisolak signed SB299 on Thursday, after the measure passed with only one lawmaker — Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus — opposed. The measure extends an existing incentive program for electric vehicles through subsidies to purchase green school buses and does not rely on state funds.

“SB299 is a step in the right direction towards a cleaner energy future for our children,” Sisolak said in a ceremony at his office in Carson City, adding that electric buses cost 30 percent less to maintain than traditional diesel buses. “By signing this bill today, Nevada is opening the door for our utility companies and school districts to partner to protect our environment and improve the quality of life for our children and the communities they call home and they live.”

Rudy Zamora, director of Chispa Nevada, a Latino-focused offshoot of the League of Conservation Voters, said his group has been working on the issue for the last three years.

“Right now, our kids are riding in toxic diesel school buses that put their health at risk, pollute the air we breathe, and damage our environment, but SB299 begins the transition to a clean ride for kids,” he said in a statement. “For low-income communities of color who disproportionately suffer from dirty air and the corresponding lung and heart illnesses, this is an important opportunity for a better future.”

Sponsored by Democratic Sens. Chris Brooks and Pat Spearman, the bill would expand a subsidy program so that electric utilities in Nevada, mainly NV Energy, can include incentives for public schools in their annual plans to promote electric vehicle infrastructure.

Schools will work through the Electric Vehicles Infrastructure Demonstration (EVID) program to receive reimbursement for up to 75 percent of the cost of purchasing electric school buses and installing the infrastructure needed for their operation.

"One reason why we want to change these buses is because children, and moreso the ones that belong to minority groups, are suffering from asthma. We see that one of every 12 children in Nevada have asthma and that makes them miss classes," Zamora said in a recent interview. "We do not want our children to worry about filthy air, we want them to focus on their studies."

It’s not the first air quality-related action from Sisolak this year. In mid-March, he signed an agreement committing Nevada to goals for reducing greenhouse gases in line with the Paris Climate Agreement, despite President Donald Trump’s promise to withdraw the U.S. from that pact.

In a statement, the environmental group Western Resource Advocates highlighted the importance of making the transition from diesel buses to green vehicles, to promote an outdoor environment free of pollutants that lead to respiratory diseases and even cancer.

“The electric school bus pilot program will help bring the cost of electric buses in line with new diesel buses – without the harmful pollution and at no additional cost to Nevadans,” Western Resource Advocates’ staff attorney Cameron Dyer said. "This will protect our children’s health, save Nevada schools money, and help our state to continue to address climate change.”

Zamora added that the next step for Chispa is to organize school districts so they can use funds to buy their electric buses.

"Right now we see that in Washoe County, they are interested in this," Zamora said. "We hope that Clark County also takes advantage of these benefits."

Chispa has been organizing a "Clean Buses for Healthy Kids" campaign organized in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Maryland and Connecticut.

The campaign is pushing Nevada policymakers to use $24.8 million dollars in fines, paid through a settlement with Volkswagen over an emissions cheating scandal, to invest in clean energy, zero-emissions school buses.

"The campaign was not only seeking funds — we want to see buses being purchased," Zamora said. "The greatest victory for us will be when in Nevada all buses are electric. That’s something we won’t see happening overnight, but it's the first step towards making this become a reality.”

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