Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Monday, April 15, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Fairness may be in the eye of the beholder, but some eyes are more equal than others at the Nevada Legislature.
Clark County legislators have the clout to steer state dollars southward, fixing what many have called a longstanding inequity in state funding that favors northern counties.
Consider: Fifteen of the state's 21 senators and 33 of state's 42 members of the Assembly represent districts wholly in Clark County; they represent more than two-thirds of the state’s population and the state’s vital economic interests.
“If Southern Nevada gets a cough, the whole state gets a cold, and if you think about that analogy, when things don’t go well in Southern Nevada, everybody else feels the repercussions, as well,” Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, said.
“Fair” can work like this: Behold, northern counties, as legislators shift money to Clark County, the most economically important county in the state.
“We want to be fair to everyone, but part of being fair to everyone is being fair to the south,” Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, said.
Although Gov. Brian Sandoval proposed a budget, legislators always have the choice to change the budget and threaten to pull money from the districts of legislators who don’t support certain bills.
Whether to address fairness or to advance agendas, this year’s legislative session again features a number of ideas and proposals that would send state money sluicing south from Carson City to Clark County.
Nevada’s major battle this year begins and ends with how much more money the state needs to for a quality education system and where that money gets channeled.
A study last year showed that the Clark County School District gets less than it should from the state.
That’s because the state divides its education money between counties through a complicated and antiquated formula that doesn’t consider poverty and English-language learner status.
Clark County boasts high numbers of students living in poverty and students with limited English proficiency.
The study didn’t recommend changing the formula this year.
Instead, Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Reno, said there’s a bill that would create the Task Force on K-12 Public Education Funding to study the issue and make recommendations to change the state’s education funding formula — called the Distributive School Account — for the 2015 legislative session.
“Our DSA is extremely complicated, and it’s not an easy lift to reconfigure and reprogram it,” Smith said.
But Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, has said Clark County needs more education dollars this year, and he may go outside of the funding formula to get money for Clark County before formally amending the formula in 2015.
Kirkpatrick said she’s not sure yet if the formula changes can make it through this legislative session.
“I don’t know if it can or can’t be done this session,” she said.
Compared with the state’s preliminary plans to change the K-12 system, the Legislature is considering a distinct overhaul proposal for Nevada’s higher education system.
Following a study last year, the proposal would reconfigure another labyrinthine state funding formula. The practical effect of the changes would mean more money for the state’s three higher education institutions in Clark County.
Still, the much-debated shift doesn’t amount to much: UNLV gets $1,016,520; College of Southern Nevada gets $8,192,851; and Nevada State College gets $3,594,757.
Likewise, northern institutions lose money.
The bottomline fight, though, is how quickly all of this happens. Sandoval’s budget calls for phasing in the money move.
Some legislators are calling for more overall funding so that the southern schools could get more money this year and the northern schools would not have to take an immediate hit to their budgets.
The tension occurs between southern legislators who want money for southern colleges this year and northern legislators who want a “hold harmless” provision so they don’t immediately lose money.
“Just because you’re in a rural or urban area, we want to make sure we don’t go backwards,” Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said.
University Regent Mark Doubrava wants a discussion about opening a medical school at UNLV.
It’s an idea that pits Reno against the Las Vegas metropolitan area beause Reno has the state’s medical school.
Although concerned citizens, doctors and other medical industry professionals have debated the merits and demerits of a southern medical school, legislators have largely left the idea as just that: an idea.
The deadline has passed for most legislators to introduce bills that would help pay for a medical school in Southern Nevada. Only high-ranking legislators such as Kirkpatrick can still introduce so-called leadership bills.
“I know that local governments are working together to see if they can do it all on their own without legislation that has to do with that,” Kirkpatrick said.
Asked by the Sun if she’d use a leadership bill for a medical school funding proposal, she said: “I’m working on taxes so you have something to write about.”
A board of elected and appointed officials controls in large part where the state’s road dollars go.
A bill before the Legislature would give Clark County more of a say in who gets transportation money.
The proposal would rejigger the state board so that Clark County would have more representation.
Right now, the three appointed members include one representative from Las Vegas, Reno and the rural counties. The board also includes the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and controller.
The bill would create a 15-member board, eight of whom would reside in Clark County.
While the governor has made statements opposing the bill, its chief proponents say it would help dollars flow to the county with the most drivers and tourists.
While not a classic North-South issue, a proposal to remove constitutional tax provisions afforded to the mining industry could be a proxy North-South fight that steers dollars South from mines in the North.
“I don’t think that’s a North-South issue at all,” Kirkpatrick said. “Is gaming a North-South issue because the bulk of it’s done in the south? ... I think people in this building want to make sure that everybody is paying their fair share.”
The silver state’s mining industry has a miniscule presence in Clark County, but it’s readily apparent to attentive Nevadans that the northern counties reap tax windfalls from the industry while those in the south don’t see immediate, direct benefit.
“It’s not in the everyday world of Southern Nevadans,” Smith said.
Although mining lobbyists have warned that any mining taxation provisions could face legal impediments, some southern legislators have said they can clear those hurdles and win more money for education priorities in Clark County.