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April 25, 2015

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Rainy-day fund’s defeat a bitter pill for education

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For the state’s school districts and their champions, the end of the 2009 legislative session was a nail-biter that culminated with a kick in the gut.

As the final frantic hours ticked away, they sought desperately to override the governor’s veto of a bill that would have created an education rainy-day fund. The aim was to protect public schools from budget cuts in future economic downturns.

The Assembly side of the veto override was easy, a 36-5 vote. The legislation was, after all, Speaker Barbara Buckley’s baby. But the Senate split down the party lines and came up two votes shy of the two-thirds majority that would have made the measure law.

To come so close, after such a long and contentious battle, only to fall short in the final hours, was devastating, said Joyce Haldeman, associate superintendent of community and government relations for the Clark County School District.

The failure to persuade any two of the Senate’s nine Republicans to vote to override the veto was the biggest disappointment of the session, Haldeman and Buckley said.

“We have seen rallies at schools, we’ve seen parents and teachers and students speak out for education,” Buckley said Tuesday. “To have the measure pass the entire Legislature only to be vetoed is just unconscionable.”

Buckley’s Assembly Bill 458 had been backed by Nevada’s 17 school superintendents and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Keith Rheault and would have significantly changed the way Nevada pays for its public schools.

The state uses a complex and convoluted formula to calculate how much money each school district receives in basic support. Once the state’s minimum per-pupil guarantee is met, the leftover tax revenue reverts to the state’s general fund, even if the money was originally earmarked for education. AB458 would have redirected the overage to a separate “education stabilization fund.”

No one was expecting a sudden windfall for public schools.

“We know there’s no money to put in it right now,” Haldeman said. “All we wanted was to get it established, to send a message that the money we collect from taxpayers in the name of education needs to stay in education.”

Over the past two years, about $157 million in education tax revenues collected statewide reverted to the general fund. Had the education stabilization fund been in place at the time, Nevada’s public schools would have been largely protected from the current budget shortfall. Hundreds of millions of dollars in K-12 funding has been cut, including more than $250 million in Clark County alone.

AB458 “would have been a fundamental step toward real fiscal reform,” according to Las Vegas economic analyst Jeremy Aguero.

“This is something that needs to be done,” agreed Randy Robinson, lobbyist for the Nevada Association of School Boards. “We have to break the cycle of up and down revenues and the lack of stability.”

And this session seemed like the opportune time to make the change, while the painful lessons of the budget cuts were fresh in the minds of lawmakers and the public, Robinson said.

The advocates of the education rainy day fund say they will push for the measure again in the 2011 session, but they will have to again face the measure's strongest opponent, Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno.

And the strongest advocate, Buckley will no longer be a legislator because term limits are ending her stint.

She is, however, expected to run for governor.

When asked to gauge the bill's chances of a successful revival in 2011, Buckley said: "If we've learned anything from this budget crisis, it's that we need a dedicated rainy-day fund for education. I absolutely believe it will be signed into law by our next governor."

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