Nevada LegislatureSocial Justice

Sine Die: How the Nevada Legislature Finally Passed the Budget Deal

After Republicans led a three day budget blockade, the Nevada Legislature finally passed a series of bills needed to complete the state’s budget. ESA school voucher funding is out, and Governor Brian Sandoval’s (R) marijuana excise tax is back in. And the long awaited capital improvements bill was resurrected and passed as well.

How did it all happen? We explain below.

On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson (R-Henderson) led a walkout from the Senate as they were voting on budget bills. This launched the Republicans’ budget blockade that threatened everything from the marijuana tax to funding the Northern Nevada Veterans’ Home, UNR’s Engineering School, and Meals on Wheels service for seniors in need. But even as Republican legislators were publicly digging in their heels over vouchers, Sandoval and his inner circle were privately meeting with Democratic leaders to salvage the budget deal.

First, Republican legislators threw Carson City into chaos.

By the time of Monday’s SB 506 voucher hearing, negotiations had reached a standstill. As Senator Joyce Woodhouse (D-Henderson) told us Saturday, “We [Democrats] were firm in our position that we were not going to fund ESA’s with general fund dollars.” And on the Republican side, Sandoval refused to budge on bills to raise the minimum wage, protect workers’ rights, or expand voting rights.

Republicans were upset over Democrats calling their bluff, first with the Monday night voucher hearing and later with Thursday’s budget votes. Republicans continued voting in lockstep against these budget bills through Saturday. But when progressive activists confronted Republican Senators on their intransigence that day, at least a couple of them were ready to reconsider.

Republicans then began to buckle under pressure.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Educate Nevada Now (ENN) Policy Director Sylvia Lazos confirmed publicly what many in the Legislative Building were saying privately over the weekend: Governor Sandoval’s office was engaging in “bill for bill trading”. At one point, Sandoval even offered Democrats a signature on the insulin pricing bill (SB 265) in exchange for vouchers. But Sandoval would not budge on the workers’ rights or voting rights bills, thereby limiting his chances of winning over Democratic votes for vouchers.

When Governor Sandoval declared over the weekend that there would be no special session, he meant it. Instead, Sandoval’s office rebooted negotiations with Democrats. Clues to those negotiations appeared when Sandoval began signing some of the very “party-line bills” he insisted he would not, such as SB 383 to establish a fiduciary rule for the financial industry, and AB 384 to provide rehabilitated ex-offenders more employment opportunities (“Ban the Box”).

Another clue materialized Saturday, when Senator Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) answered constituent Vivian Leal’s question on the budget impasse. “We’re working on it. […] We’re working to find common ground.” Behind the scenes, Sandoval’s office was working to secure votes from him and Senator Heidi Gansert (R-Reno).

Finally, the Republicans caved under pressure.

According to ACLU of Nevada’s Holly Welborn, they really had no choice. “They needed to move on the budget bills so they wouldn’t shut down the State of Nevada.” The stakes were particularly high for Gansert and Kieckhefer, as many of their constituents want the programs funded by the SB 546 capital improvements bill, such as Northern Nevada Veterans’ Home and the UNR Engineering School.

Despite Republican legislative leaders threatening, “No ESA’s, No Budget”, our sources close to Sandoval have insisted that vouchers were never his hill to die on. That’s what ultimately made Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson’s (R-Henderson) and Assembly Minority Leader Paul Anderson’s (R-Las Vegas) threats so hollow.

And like that, Nevada’s state budget suddenly came together.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Late Sunday night, Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford (D-Spring Valley) revived the previously dead SB 487 marijuana tax bill and SB 546 capital improvements bill. Senator Becky Harris (R-Enterprise) joined Gansert, Kieckhefer, and all Senate Democrats in passing both bills. The Senate also voted unanimously to pass SB 553 to authorize $20 million in tax credits for Opportunity Scholarships. The $20 million worth of tax credits is less than half of the $45 million Republican leaders walked away from last week.

Anderson soon conceded all three bills would pass the Assembly. Hours later, the Assembly followed suit. Both houses of the Legislature even passed SB 539 with an amendment that contains most of the SB 265 insulin bill.

Republicans Meet The Law of Unintended Consequences

Though the Assembly Republican Caucus attempted to save face, they quickly got blowback from the right over the final budget deal.

In contrast, progressives declared victory over the death of the ESA voucher program and the passage of the budget bills with the marijuana excise tax. ACLU’s Holly Welborn described SB 555 as “a drop in the bucket compared to the vouchers for everyone”. And  ENN’s Sylvia Lazos commended the bipartisan budget deal for keeping public funds in public schools. “Children win when we put their interest first.”

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