Legislature approves $6.6B Nevada budget

Sandra Chereb, Associated Press
Associated Press

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) -- Nevada lawmakers approved a $6.6 general fund budget Monday, adopting the bulk of recommendations proposed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval that adds money for public schools and early development learning, shuffles funding for higher education and restores state employee pay cuts.

The five major budget bills completed their process through the Senate and Assembly by early evening, with five hours to spare before a midnight deadline to adjourn.

A huge chunk of the general fund targets K-12 education, accounting for more than $2.5 billion. That budget adds about $120 million in general funds to public schools, the first increase since the recession put Nevada's economy in a budget-busting chokehold that began in 2009.

The statewide, per-pupil average support will increase from the existing level of $5,374 to $5,590 this year and $5,676 in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2014.

About $328 million is targeted for class size efforts that will allow the hiring of more than 4,000 teachers over the two-year budget period to reduce student-teacher ratios through grade three.

Another big portion is $48 million to implement smaller class sizes in kindergartens statewide to a ratio of 21-1. The funds include $14 million for school districts to buy portable classrooms if extra classroom space is needed.

Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, called the education funding "exciting," even though the budget doesn't go as far as the Democratic majority had hoped.

Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, agreed, touting $50 million in general funds set aside for early English language learner programs.

Democrats early in the session outlined $300 million in education priorities and complained Sandoval's budget didn't do enough to restore more than $700 million in education cuts since 2009. But their efforts to add more money failed when Republicans blocked their attempts to raise taxes and stood firm behind Sandoval, who said he would veto any tax hikes.

But the budget does include extending for another two years $633 million in taxes that were set to expire June 30. Sandoval last year said he would continue the levies to avoid another round of school cuts.

The so-called sunset bill, SB475, also provided more tax breaks for businesses by raising the threshold on exemptions for payroll taxes.

"I object to the concept of sunsets because once again, we are extending them," said Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden.

But the bill passed with only token opposition.

While the governor can tout increased education funding, the issue will remain front and center for the next 18 months. That's when voters will decide an initiative on whether to impose a 2 percent margins tax on businesses grossing more than $1 million a year. The Nevada State Education Association, which organized the petition effort, said it would raise $800 million for schools.

State employees will see bigger paychecks come July 1, when a 2.5 percent salary cut imposed two years ago is restored. Sandoval had wanted to continue the pay cut but reduce the number of furlough days from six to three before eliminating them in 2015. But state workers complained they've taken big financial hits, not only in lost pay but in higher insurance costs. They argued that at least with furloughs they get some benefit in having a day off.

"I think this is a strong statement that we do value our state employees," said Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno.

Beside education and the employee pay bill, the general appropriations bill lays out $4 billion in general fund spending — $1.98 billion and $2.02 billion in each of the next two years, respectively.

The spending bill includes about $750 million for the seven institutions within the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, was one of four Republicans who voted against the big budget bill because the Legislature was unable to find $6 million to keep funding stable for two rural northern Nevada colleges.