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December 19, 2014

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Legislature poised to pass Sandoval’s $6.6 billion budget

The Legislature was poised late Sunday to approve the $6.6 billion state budget for the next two years, largely adopting recommendations from Gov. Brian Sandoval.

The Democratic controlled Legislature capitulated to the Republican governor’s wishes Sunday when the Senate passed his payroll tax cut for businesses and adopted his education spending plan for English Language Learners, full-day kindergarten, and class-size reduction.

The Legislature must pass the budget by midnight Monday.

Both legislators and the governor got what they wanted in the $2.5 billion schools budget: more money for Nevada’s schoolchildren.

But Democrats won’t reach the funding level they thought was appropriate. Last month, Senate Democrats publicly spiked their payroll tax hike in a contentious Senate floor debate. That tax plan would’ve added money to the budget for more education programs.

“We had a debate earlier this session about where we stood and what we’re doing for our kids, and we should be proud,” said Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno.

While Democrats had earlier argued that education programs deserved more money than Sandoval had included in his budget, they now said that it’s good that the governor agreed where the state should spend the money it does have as it comes out of a lengthy economic recession.

“I’m glad that the governor funded our priorities,” said Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas. “We’re not going to have to cut (the budget) this time.”

Now legislators, some begrudgingly, are on track to pass a payroll tax cut for businesses.

Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, wore a resigned expression as she headed toward the Senate floor late Sunday night to pass various budget-related bills.

“We’ve done some really great things, but we’re also lacking in some areas,” she said.

She had earlier said she’d “reluctantly” support a payroll tax break Sandoval had recommended in January because it was wrapped up in an important budget bill. Under the proposal, businesses could write off the first $340,000 in annual payroll costs rather than the current $250,000 threshold.

With a smile on his face, Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, had little to say about the budget.

“Three words: I support it,” he said.

Beyond the education budget, legislators appear ready to make some significant changes to the governor’s spending plan.

Perhaps the largest deviation from Sandoval’s budget is an agreement between the Legislature and governor to restore a 2.5 percent pay cut for state and higher education employees.

Sandoval had originally recommended eliminating nine furlough days for state employees, which would’ve also given them a raise because they’d work nine more days during the next two years.

But Democratic legislators and state employees said they’d rather see a real wage increase than a reduction in furlough days.

Staff from the governor’s office said Sandoval agreed to the change.

“The governor all session has been listening to what state employees have been asking for,” said Gerald Gardner, the governor’s chief of staff.

Sandoval’s budget director, however, said the Legislature made relatively few changes to the budget in the context of the whole $6.6 billion budget.

“Really, the changes are fairly small,” said Jeff Mohlenkamp, Sandoval’s budget director.

Legislators have also tentatively approved other changes to the governor’s budget:

-They voted not to build a new death chamber at Nevada State Prison in Ely.

-They adopted a higher education spending plan that differed from the governor’s plan, sending more money to the College of Southern Nevada, Nevada State College, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, than the governor recommended. It remained unclear late Sunday whether or not rural legislators will receive $6 million to mitigate 11 percent annual cuts to Great Basin College in Elko and Western Nevada College in Carson City.

-Legislators also voted to cut a $17 million teacher incentive program that they said has not worked to improve educational outcomes for schoolchildren living in high poverty neighborhoods.

-Legislators took $3.5 million in money the state receives from a settlement with the tobacco industry and shifted it into an autism treatment program. Kieckhefer said the extra money would cut the wait list for the program in half.

-A proposal from the governor to shift parole and probation from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Corrections also failed to achieve legislative approval.

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