Nevada Minimum Wage, Education Petitions Turned In

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Organizers of efforts to fund Nevada public schools to the national average and to raise the minimum wage said they turned in more than enough signatures on Monday to qualify their petitions for a spot on the November ballot.

The Nevada State Education Association said it turned in more than 108,000 signatures supporting its initiative to raise the state's per pupil education funding to the national average, a mandate that could force legislators to boost current spending by more than $500 million per year.

"We are now one step closer to ensuring our students have the tools they need to succeed and to receive the quality education they deserve," NSEA President Terry Hickman said as the names were submitted a day ahead of a Tuesday deadline.

"The number of signatures collected clearly sends a strong message that education is a top priority."

Hickman said per-pupil spending in Nevada was $5,813 in 2002 - and that's $1,735 below the national average.

The number of signatures given to election officials around the state was more than double the minimum total of registered voters needed to qualify for the November ballot. Officials now must verify the minimum was met before a ballot slot is assured.

If the initiative wins voter approval this year, it would have to pass again in 2006 to finally take effect.

The proposal has drawn support from educators and criticism from the Nevada Taxpayers Association for being too vague. It was proposed as a companion to the Education First proposal sponsored by Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev.

The Education First initiative, which has already been turned in, calls for Nevada lawmakers to fund education before other state programs. The union initiative takes that one step further by proposing a funding goal.

Both education initiatives are part of a backlash resulting from the 2003 legislative session, when legislators failed to meet the statutory deadline for approving an education budget. The delay resulted in hiring freezes in numerous school districts, and Nye County officials postponed school openings until the funding situation was resolved.

Proponents of the minimum wage petition said they turned in just over 80,000 signatures, easily exceeding the required minimum of 51,244 names.

The petition filed by the Coalition to Give Nevada a Raise would amend the Nevada Constitution to raise the minimum wage to $6.15 an hour from the current $5.15. The effort is being backed by a coalition of labor unions, workers' activists and Democrats.

"Thousands of hard-working Nevadans are struggling to survive on less than $11,000 of income a year," said state AFL-CIO chief Danny Thompson, adding that the proposal seeks to boost the minimum wage "so that people can afford to take care of their families."

The proposal has drawn opposition from some business groups, but proponents said the current minimum wage of $5.15 hasn't been increased in seven years. They add that companies providing minimal benefits to employees would be exempt from the proposal.

Of Nevada's 939,000 workers, Thompson said 51,000 earn the minimum wage and another 50,000 make less than $6.15 an hour. Sixty percent of the minimum-wage workers are women, he added.