Scorecard for the Nevada Legislature’s special session shows no winners

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David Calvert / Nevada Independent

State Sen. Joe Hardy is shown on the 12th day of the Legislature’s special session in Carson City on Sunday, July 19, 2020.

Wed, Jul 22, 2020 (2 a.m.)

As state agencies begin working with far less money than originally was expected for the coming fiscal year, the reality of this month's special session of the Nevada Legislature will set in: There were no winners.

Lawmakers wrapped on the 12-day special session on Sunday, cutting over $500 million from the state budget to help fill a gaping hole in the state’s coffers caused by months of businesses shutdowns — and the attendant flow of tax revenue to Carson City — due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Almost every state agency or service was put on the chopping block in some form, some for small amounts, others for tens of millions of dollars.

At times, the difficulty of the decisions seemed to weigh on lawmakers’ minds. For the large budget cut bill, 697 exhibits were filed, the vast majority of which were public testimony in opposition to the cuts.

"Hearing the testimony and the folks reaching out about some of these programs was quite heartbreaking," Sen. Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, said on the session’s last day, "and while we have not, again, solved the problem, I think there were some decisions that have eased that pain."

Here’s a look at the effect some of the decisions made in those 12 days will have going forward.

Health and Human Services

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the state Department of Health and Human Services was staring down a $233 million budget cut at the start of the special session.

Some of those cuts were marked for optional Medicaid services, services that states can choose to offer on top of mandatory Medicaid offerings. The services are optional only in name, health officials stressed, because they include benefits such as prescription drugs, physical therapy and dental services.

Lawmakers ultimately decided to lessen the cuts, though, restoring $49 million to optional Medicaid services and millions more to a swath of programs including child welfare incentives, family planning services and rural health clinics.

The cuts for the department were still substantial, at almost $152 million, but the lawmakers' intervention stopped the department from having some of its most critical services cut.

Mining industry

For a while near the end of the special session, it looked like taxes may have been raised on the mining industry to make up some of the lost funds.

Democrats put forward a bill late in the day Thursday that would have capped mining tax deductions at 60%, raising $54.7 million in new revenue for the state.

The original bill did not earmark the funding for any specific purposes, and received no Republican support in the Senate. The bill needed at least one Republican to back it for it to pass by the supermajority required to raise state taxes.

Sen. Keith Pickard, R-Henderson, said on the floor that he would have supported the bill if the funds were earmarked for education. Two days later, Democrats revived the bill with language marking the funds for education in hopes of gaining Pickard's backing. He walked back his promise, however, and, in a floor session marked by partisan disagreement, the bill failed once more.

Pickard said he wanted to have a discussion about how best to improve education funding in the next regular session.

“I commit to every teacher and, more importantly, to every student in this state to rectify my mistake and make sure we have a thorough, open and inclusive conversation. (One involving) both parties, and all the stakeholders, because Nevada deserves that,” Pickard said.

Lawmakers have heavily hinted at looking at mining taxes again in the next regular session. They did pass one bill accelerating the collection rates of some mining taxes until 2024.

UNLV

Even before the special session, UNLV had lost $25 million in expected funding for its medical school building project. During the special session, a bill targeting capital improvement project funding erased $20 million for the construction of a new engineering building.

In the last few days of the session, lawmakers identified another $25 million that was pulled from the Nevada System of Higher Education's budget. NSHE officials this week said $3.7 million of the $25 million cut would be pulled from UNLV. According to an NSHE document, the cut will result in more limited course offerings, increased class sizes and reduced student services at UNLV.

Sen. Chris Brooks, D-Las Vegas, said that the cuts were, once again, an example of UNLV facing the brunt of budgetary hits compared with UNR, which was spared from having any of its major capital improvement requests being cut.

“There is really no choice in this hard time, it is incredibly important that we recognize this, and understand that when there is a recovery, we will be coming back and asking to complete these projects,” Brooks said.

K-12 education

Educators and education activists were some of the most prominent voices raised during the session, calling in and filing hundreds of letters of public comment opposing cuts to the state's public schools.

The cuts to education came out to over $150 million, after lawmakers sent $50 million in federal relief funds to underperforming schools and students in a block grant form.

Jim Frazee, the vice president of the Clark County Education Association, wrote to lawmakers that what happened in the special session would be the end of the discussion for education.

“We must choose to grow up as a state and accept our responsibilities to each other. I want this body to come back during the (2021) regular session with a plan to raise new revenue,” Frazee said. “We are looking for substantial new revenue, not only replacing what was cut. Nevada’s students and parents demand that you fix the chronic underfunding that has been with us for decades.”

State workers

In Gov. Steve Sisolak’s original proposal, he called for a mandatory furlough day a month and a freeze on merit pay increases for state workers.

The American Federation of State County Municipal Employees Local 4041, the union that represents state workers, raised concerns ahead of the session about the cuts.

Lawmakers ended up rolling back the furloughs to one day a month for six months starting in January. They also reinstated merit pay increases.

Political effects

It remains to be seen what the political ramifications, if any, will be for lawmakers as the November election looms.

The session ran for longer than some expected. Partisan disagreements began a few days before the end of the session and seemingly peaked when Pickard walked back his support for the amended mining tax bill. Democrats castigated him on the Senate floor, and some lawmakers left flip-flops lining the hall to Pickard’s room.

The debate over mining taxes led many Democrats to accuse Republicans of favoring corporations over working-class Nevadans, and many Republicans to accuse Democrats of unfairly singling out one industry.

Pickard’s campaign situation is possibly the most interesting. The CCEA backed him over Democratic challenger Julie Pazina in 2018, and Pickard won his district by 24 votes.

After Pickard's support for the tax increase had fallen through, the CCEA Twitter account said he would be a “one termer,” but then deleted the tweet.

Pickard spoke directly to CCEA members after the vote concluded and apologized for his “mistake."

“When (Sen. Cannizzaro) implies that I’m a coward, I might be, but at least I admit when I make a mistake,” he said.

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