The day after lawmakers wrapped up their 120-day session, Gov. Steve Sisolak proudly touted a pay raise for teachers, the approval of collective bargaining for state workers and a revamp of the state’s antiquated K-12 funding formula — all goals he had set upon taking office.
In a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Sisolak highlighted many of the major policy changes approved by lawmakers in the hectic final weeks of the legislative process, while promising more work on education issues during the rest of his four-year term.
“I firmly believe that the Nevada you saw on February 4th is not the Nevada that you see on June 4th,” he said. “And I think it’s a much better Nevada. I think that everyday families are impacted in a very positive way. And I'm looking forward to seeing the results of that.”
The governor also defended his office’s decision to push for significant amendments to bills changing the K-12 funding formula and allowing roughly 22,000 state workers to unionize. Both proposals were modified to remove potential automatic increases in funding over future years and allowing much more governor discretion in setting budgets for those policies.
“If you tie somebody's hands so they don't have any flexibility, the cuts in other departments would be something that you might not be able to take,” he said. “If we have to make sacrifices — which I hope we don't have to — we can continue to grow. I think a governor needs that kind of flexibility and that's why we did that.”
The session was Sisolak’s first as governor since being elected in November and also the first in 20 years to have a Democrat in that position. Democrats also controlled both the Senate and the Assembly, giving Sisolak a smoother path to getting his agenda through the legislative process and back to his desk.
Sisolak said he was confident that a measure passed on a contentious party-line vote that would extend a scheduled decrease in the state’s payroll tax would prevail if Republican lawmakers or others challenge it in court over the lack of two-thirds majority support. The tax extension is expected to generate $98 million over the biennium that will support school safety initiatives, teacher raises and a private school scholarship program.
“I've been in government for 20 some odd years and if you don't trust your attorneys, you've got a problem,” he said, referring to an opinion issued in late May by the Legislative Counsel Bureau that concluded the measure only needed a simple majority to pass. “So I'm confident that the attorneys gave us a good opinion.”
He declined to say whether he believed a special session would be necessary if a court were to strike down the extension of the tax, saying that “either way … we're going to be able to keep moving forward.”
He also said that teachers shouldn’t be worried about a possible lawsuit jeopardizing the funding for the teacher pay raises he promised.
“The teachers should feel very secure that they're getting a pay increase,” Sisolak said. “That was one of our number one priorities.”
Total education funding from the state and other sources averages out to $10,227 per pupil in the first year of the budget cycle and $10,319 in the second — a $878 bump from the current level for the first year and $970 in the second. Sisolak called the additional funding a “step in the right direction,” though he acknowledged that it “doesn’t get us all the way where we need to go.”
“You can look at the glass as being nine tenths full or you can look at it as being one tenth empty, and I think that this glass is nine tenths full,” Sisolak said. “I'm not going to tell you that it got us all the way we need to get on education, but it certainly is the largest step in this state that has ever been taken to get us there.”
Clark County School District has said it has received enough money to carry out teacher raises even though it still has a relatively small budget shortfall. The Clark County Education Association, meanwhile, has promised a strike next school year if there are any cuts.
Sisolak said he hasn’t been in direct conversations with CCEA about the strike.
“I think they need to work with us. The infighting needs to stop,” he said. “I'm worried about what's in the best interests of the students and the educators, not any of the other individuals.”
He also lauded the passage of a new funding formula that sets in motion an eventual replacement of the state’s convoluted, half-century-old distribution model. The latest version of the bill was kept under wraps until two hours before the session adjourned, and critics don’t like that it expands the governor’s discretion to fund schools to the extent he or she sees fit.
The original version of the bill would have required the state’s contribution to public education grow each year in line with inflation, unless there was a downturn. As with the state worker collective bargaining bill, which gives the governor wide authority to decide spending levels on wages regardless of negotiations, Sisolak said the new provisions were necessary to afford the state financial flexibility in case of unexpected costs or another economic downturn.
“There needs to be enough flexibility if we had an enormous disaster in the state of Nevada, if there was a wildfire that got totally out of control in the north … If there was an epidemic, if there was a depression or any one of a multitude of things,” he said.
Though lawmakers took up the funding formula this session, they did not address comprehensively how to increase funding for education-long term. But Sisolak hinted at possible revenue conversations to come in 2021.
“We don't have an income tax here. You know our property tax is artificially low in Nevada because of the caps. We need to determine what the actual costs of providing this quote unquote adequate education is and then come up with a plan to raise the money necessary for that,” Sisolak said.
Sisolak clarified that establishing a state income tax is not on the table, but that he still needs to figure out what raises in revenue would be needed to adequately fund education.
“I need to determine in a responsible way what the need is. This way of putting it together, the way it is now isn't working,” Sisolak said. “It hasn't worked for 50 years and I don't think it’s going to work for the next 50 years.”
Sisolak also declined to say if he planned to veto any additional bills, but his office confirmed after the briefing that he plans to sign Democratic Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui’s AB291, an omnibus gun safety bill that outlaws bump stocks and allows for the issuance of extreme risk protection orders, court-approved orders that allow for the temporary seizure of firearms from a person displaying high-risk behavior.