There is less than one month left in the 2017 Legislative Session, and that means, more and more, lawmakers are starting to turn their attention to the state budget. The latest numbers suggest that budget writers will have close to $8 billion to work with over the next two years. Reno Public Radio’s News Director Michelle Billman spoke with our political reporter Paul Boger about the revenue projection and other bills making their way through the process.
Optimistic Revenue Projections
Lawmakers kicked off the week with good news. An independent panel of fiscal experts announced last Monday that state revenues will be roughly $96 million more than previously predicted during fiscal years 2018 and 2019, bringing the state general fund total to $8 billion during the next biennium. In addition, the fiscal analysis found that there is an additional $44 million in unspent tax money in the current state budget.
According to presenters, Nevada’s improved economy and growing job numbers are helping to bolster state revenue collection. During a presentation on national, regional and state finances, Dan White with Moody’s Analytics told forecasters that growth in mid-wage jobs has finally caught up with pre-recession levels, which lifts consumer spending and prices, and, ultimately increases sales taxes.
Now, the question is: Where will the money go?
Lawmakers have less than 30 days to allocate nearly $8 billion. Governor Brian Sandoval, as well as Democratic and Republican lawmakers, issued statements regarding the projection just moments after its release.
“Throughout Nevada we are witnessing expansive growth in traditional industries and robust development in diversification. It is reassuring that State revenues are also generating growth and keeping up with dynamic population increases… We do have unanticipated demands in corrections and emergency response, however, I would like to see a majority of this new revenue go directly to education, specifically to students in K-12. I introduced the weighted student funding formula last session and this additional money provides a unique opportunity to invest directly in students who are economically disadvantaged, English learners, gifted and talented, and in special education. This is a student-first formula where funding follows a student and is based on their specific needs.” – Governor Brian Sandoval
“While these newly projected revenues will not be enough to fully meet our needs in public education, mental health, job training, and other vital services, we are committed to putting our tax dollars to work for the hardworking Nevadans who still feel left behind.” – Speaker of the Assembly Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) and Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford (D-Las Vegas)
“Today’s budget forecast confirms one important thing – the reforms put in place by Governor Sandoval and Assembly Republican Leadership [in 2015] are working. Nevada today is stronger and better prepared to meet the future – the market is stable, and our economy is working up and down the spectrum. Now is not the time to cast doubt on our future. Our policies need to continue to solidify and our economic diversity needs to continue to grow, as it has so successfully done in recent years. Placing any additional burdens or obstacles on our economy will stunt our growth.” – Assembly Minority Leader Paul Anderson (R-Las Vegas)
One thing is for sure, while the additional money is a boon to the appropriations process, it’s still not enough to tackle all of the legislative priorities of the governor or legislative Democrats, so there will likely be a culling of some bills that call for new spending in the near future.
Spending the Extra Money
As mentioned above, the economic forum announced an additional $44 million in revenue for the current biennium.
And with that announcement came a flurry of inevitable spending bills that would appropriate those funds. At this point, a large chunk of that money will likely go to k-12 public education. That measure has support from all parties including the governor.
After that, it’s a toss up. Nevada’s Medicaid program is facing a deficit, so a measure by Assemblyman Michael Sprinkle (D-Sparks) would infuse about $17 million into the program to cover debts. There’s also $7 million being asked for by the state Forestry Department to cover costs to mitigate the expected floods associated with this year’s unprecedented amount of snowfall, as well as fighting fires this summer.
Big Changes to Diabetes Medication Price Control Bill
One measure receiving a large amount of attention over the last few weeks is SB265. The measure essentially aimed at improving access to diabetes medications like insulin by creating price ceilings. The measure also installed requirements that pharmaceutical companies will have to disclose how they set the price for certain medications. The bill – as written – could become increasing important as the number of Nevadans diagnosed with diabetes continues to climb.
Since it’s introduction, the measure has garnered praise and support from Democratic leaders like Senator Majority Leader Aaron Ford (D-Las Vegas), but pharmaceutical companies that create and supply the drugs have opposed the measure from the start.
However, members of the Legislative Council Bureau – a non-partisan, group of lawyers, bill writers and auditors that supply lawmakers with unbiased analysis of legislation – determined that the price control aspect of the bill may be unconstitutional. In committee that language was struck from the bill, and has been forwarded to the full Senate for a vote.
Despite the loss, Senator Yvanna Cancela (D-Las Vegas) says the legislation will have a positive impact on consumers.
“Inevitably, increased transparency leads to decreased costs. We are better consumers and we are better decision makers when we are equipped with information. There’s a reason transparency measures don’t exist today. That’s because, at the end of the day, drug manufacturers don’t want to disclose why there is a 150 percent increase in costs over the last five years. With this kind of information out there, not only are we better equipped as policymakers, but drug makers will have to make the case for why these drug increases happen.”
State lawmakers are one step closer to amending the Nevada Constitution to remove language banning same-sex marriage.
Assembly Joint Resolution 2 would remove the "one man, one woman" marriage clause from the Nevada constitution and replace it with language that would allow residents to marry regardless of sexual orientation or gender.
"This is a major step," said Senator Tick Segerblom (D-Las Vegas) as he introduced the bill on the floor. "The fact that we would legitimize discrimination against people based upon their gender and gender orientation, this will go a long way to rectifying that, like the equivalent of women having the right to vote or the Equal Rights Amendment."
The Senate did make changes to the resolution, which was passed by the Assembly in March, providing an exemption for private, religious organizations.
The Senate approved the measure on a bipartisan, 19-2 vote. Republicans, who have historically opposed resolutions like AJR2, approved the constitutional amendment after bill sponsors included language that exempted private, religious leaders from performing marriages if it is against their beliefs.
"The sponsors of this legislation have shown a willingness to amend this bill to include a very important religious exemption and work with members of both parties,” says Senator Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas). "We don't see that enough in this chamber."
Despite the changes to the proposed amendment, not everyone was on board. Senators Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City) and Don Gustavson (R-Sparks), voted against the measure. Speaking on the floor of the Senate, Hardy told fellow lawmakers he felt obliged to vote against the measure.
“I have stood before for the divinely ordained ordinance of marriage to be between a man and a woman, and I still so stand. I likewise believe in honoring and obeying the law of the land… Tolerance is best demonstrated as a two-way street. I worry that differences of opinions will be construed as hate and lead to animosities that will prevent us from being appreciative of one another. I would implore all of us, including myself, to search within ourselves for ways to understand concerns for those with whom we disagree… A marriage vow of any kind will help protect and stabilize society and the individuals involved who are committed to each other. I cannot support this resolution, however, with all of its good intentions.”
The measure will now head back to the Assembly so they, too, can approve the changes. But there’s more. Since AJR2 is a constitutional amendment, lawmakers will again have to pass the measure during the 2019 session where it will then be placed on the 2020 general election ballot for approval.
Anti-Sanctuary City Political Action Committee
A group aimed at prohibiting cities in Nevada from enacting laws that would prevent local police from helping federal officials enforce immigration policies wants to take the issue to the voters.
The PAC, calling themselves Preventing Sanctuary Cities, is pushing to place the initiative on the 2018 ballot. While the official language of the measure has not yet been released, the group wasted no time in naming Senate Minority Lead Michael Roberson as its honorary chairman.
In a statement, Roberson said he was proud to lead the effort:
“We look forward to unveiling an aggressive signature gathering strategy and spreading our message to every corner of Nevada. The successful passage of this ballot question will help to keep our communities safe by ensuring that local jurisdictions do not willfully ignore federal law and operate as sanctuary cities. This will allow local law enforcement to cooperate with our federal immigration officials once they have detained dangerous criminal aliens who have committed crimes in our state and who should be removed from our country.”
The announcement comes just a few weeks after lawmakers killed a bill that would have made Nevada a sanctuary state.
So, What’s Next?
Now that the budget projections are in, lawmakers will begin the budget writing process in earnest. In all, there’s about $8 billion on the table, and lawmakers have about 29 days to wheel and deal.
That leads us to Education Savings Accounts or school vouchers. Whatever term you prefer, they’re still on the table. In an interview with the Las Vegas Journal Review, Assembly Minority Leader Paul Anderson told reporters that his caucus will vote against the state’s massive budget bill if it does not include funding for ESAs. Theoretically, Dem’s do not hold super-majorities in either chamber of the legislature, and since spending and tax bills require a two-thirds vote to pass, they’ll need at least one Republican to vote for the measure in both the Assembly and the Senate.
There’s also been more movement on a bill that would create weighted student funding formulas. SB 178, introduced by Senator Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas), would change how schools around the state are funded by focusing on the specific needs of every child in the state. In other words, schools will receive more state money for every student with disabilities, English language learners, those living in poverty as well as gifted students. Many states have recently revamped their education programs to reflect a weighted student model, and Nevada is no different. Lawmakers have been debating the merits of the formula for at least a couple years now, but never pulled the trigger due to concerns that the change would hurt rural districts in favor of Clark and Washoe Counties. But with more money up for grabs this biennium, it seems the push could possibly come to fruition.