Nevada's Tax Debate Turns to Education Issues

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Nevada lawmakers called into special session by the governor after failing to pass a record tax increase bickered Wednesday over education funding, which also went unresolved during their 120-day regular session.

The debate occurred as a special Assembly panel voted for a nearly $2 billion public school funding plan, the final budget left open after the regular session ended early Tuesday. The total state budget for the next two years is a record $4.95 billion.

"We didn't fund education fully. We did not fund education even halfway," Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani said as the Assembly Select Committee on Education Funding and Revenue approved both the education funding plan and a class-size reduction bill.

Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, said it's "shameful" the 2003 Legislature didn't approve an additional $2.1 million to fund class-size reduction for kindergarten. She added $50 more per pupil provided for textbooks doesn't begin to make up for a shortfall that already exists.

Assembly Minority Leader Lynn Hettrick, R-Gardnerville, said he's tired of being accused of wanting to cut education because he won't support nearly $870 million in new taxes. That's the amount needed to balance the state budget.

Hettrick also said statistics that show Nevada ranking 46th in per-pupil education funding are skewed because they don't account for money from all resources that help fund education.

"I just get tired of being blamed or accused of being against education," the Gardnerville Republican said, adding that no GOP lawmakers want to cut the education budget - but they believe state spending is out of control in other areas.

Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, challenged Hettrick's argument that claims about Nevada's lack of commitment to education funding are exaggerated.

"I do think we're doing a terrible job in funding education," Perkins said.

During the regular session, both the Assembly Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee added nearly $30 million to Gov. Kenny Guinn's recommended education funding. Most of the increase covers a 2.75 percent teacher pay increase.

But the committees also cut some of Guinn's education enhancements, including more than $24 million to implement full-day kindergarten in a third of Nevada's schools.

The committees also eliminated teacher stipends for at-risk schools and replaced them with a one-fifth credit toward retirements, which saved the state nearly $18 million over the biennium.

Senators who met separately from the Assembly during Wednesday's special session spent hours going over various tax proposals that would generate enough revenue for the state budget. Votes on individual taxes were scheduled to determine whether there's adequate support for them.

In ordering the special session, Guinn said he's open to a wide range of new or increased taxes as long as they're broad-based. The pro-tax governor also said he wants the special session concluded by 5 p.m. Friday.

Assembly Republicans said the special session - Nevada's third in two years - may not get the job done. They said another such session may be needed because Guinn didn't put the state budget on the agenda. They'd like to reopen the budget to reduce the amount of new revenue needed to about $700 million at most.

But Guinn isn't sending back spending bills for any downward adjustments. He made that clear on Tuesday by signing into law AB553, outlining specific state general fund appropriations.

Guinn also said there as many as 15 bills on other subjects that didn't get approved on time during the regular session, and he could add those to the special session agenda.

But Guinn is using a carrot-stick approach. He won't send those other bills over to the lawmakers until he gets the taxes needed to balance the state budget.

The governor also said he could bring lawmakers back to Carson City on June 29 and give them just one day to pass a tax plan before the end of the fiscal year. If there's no balanced budget by July 1, the start of the fiscal New Year, Guinn said government might have to shut down.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)