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Dollars and Sense: Senators Aaron Ford and Joyce Woodhouse Talk Nevada’s Budget

Budgets: We all have them. For the State of Nevada, it’s over $8 billion. That is a large number, but it may not be as large as you think.

The Trump Administration is considering actions that could result in less money in state coffers. How are #NVLeg leaders coping? I spoke with two Senators who are in a unique position to act.

 

In his State of the State Address last month, Governor Brian Sandoval (R) proposed an $8.1 billion state budget for the next biennium (or two years). On Thursday, Nevada ran into a potentially huge fiscal hiccup. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hinted at a press briefing that the Trump Administration may conduct marijuana raids in states that have legalized recreational use. That could mean real trouble for this state, as Governor Sandoval includes a 10% excise tax on recreational marijuana in his proposed budget.

“Everyone needs to remember that the public voted quite strongly for recreational marijuana.” – Senator Joyce Woodhouse (D-Henderson)

Senate Finance Committee Chair Joyce Woodhouse did not hold back in explaining the disruptive potential of this “disconcerting news.” The Governor is using this 10% excise tax to balance a budget that promises more money to public education, particularly higher education. She hopes the Trump Administration and Nevada’s Members of Congress remember that voters approved this last fall.

So does Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford (D-Spring Valley). He doesn’t take issue with Governor Sandoval’s “active monitoring” of this situation, as “I’ve found the Governor to be deliberative and conscientious.” He just doesn’t mind taking a more proactive role in challenging any potential Trump Administration marijuana crackdown.

“Marijuana was criminalized due to racist ideology.” – Senator Ford

Ford stated the discriminatory origin of marijuana criminalization should give pause to White House officials considering any sort of crackdown in Nevada and other states where recreational marijuana is legal. When I asked about federal law still prohibiting marijuana use, Ford was blunt. “There are far more serious crimes for [the Trump Administration] to pursue.”

He and Woodhouse hope the White House will back away from something that goes against their supposed “states’ rights” approach. If the Trump Administration cracks down anyway, Ford said it’s on Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) to challenge President Donald Trump in court like he did Former President Barack Obama. “Intellectual honesty requires the Attorney General to defend the State of Nevada.”

And if Trump follows through on this threat, Senator Woodhouse will work on a Plan B to balance the budget.

“We will have to find other ways to fund these programs.” – Senator Woodhouse

So will Senator Ford. When I asked him how he could fill this “pot-hole”, he had a quick response: The $70 million Sandoval wants for the ESA voucher program.

 

Photo by Andrew Davey

Another federal issue that reverberates in Nevada state government is health care, specifically the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare). Governor Sandoval has stated his wish that the federal government leave in place the funding the state needs for Medicaid, Nevada Check-up, and other critical health care programs. When I asked him, Senator Ford stated Nevada has a clear, bipartisan message on the ACA.

“Democratic leaders are with Governor Sandoval on health care: Leave Obamacare alone.” – Senator Ford

As Chair of Senate Finance, Woodhouse is acutely familiar with the federal dollars the state depends upon to carry out critical services that affect Nevadans young and old. When it comes to federal matching funds, “Nevada doesn’t have much wiggle room for changes.”

Senator Ford wants U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R) and Nevada’s other Members of Congress to relay this message to the White House. “We hope Dean Heller listens to his constituents and protects the 300,000 Nevadans who’ve benefitted from the ACA.”

 

Photo by Andrew Davey

What other fiscal challenges might lie ahead for the state? Even though the Legislature approved a historic tax reform package in 2015, Woodhouse explained how that did not magically fix everything. “That tax package was directed at education reform. It was not a cure-all for all our budget needs. […] We’re still not addressing the needs of all our students.”

Woodhouse appreciates the passage of that bipartisan 2015 tax deal, but she insists there’s much more investing the state must make in its public infrastructure across the board. The state still doesn’t have enough schools and textbooks for all its students. Many communities still don’t have enough access to health care services.

How can the state fix this? And how can the Legislature follow through on the ambitious promises made in the Nevada Blueprint?

Senator Ford reminded me that many of the items included in the Democrats’ Blueprint cost the state little to no money (such as guaranteeing paid sick leave). And for many of the items that are, Governor Sandoval agrees with them (such as investing more in higher education).

There are just a few points of contention that must be worked out. #NVLeg leaders need to reach an agreement with the Governor on ESA vouchers. They all need to prepare for whatever Trump and Congress do on matters like marijuana and the ACA. And ultimately, the state must find a way to ensure all these numbers add up and stay in the black.

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