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June 25, 2019

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Washoe County schools seeks end run around supermajority rule for taxes

A Washoe County school maintenance funding bill could reshape the legislative tax debate this year, providing a potential roadmap to circumventing the requirement that a two-thirds majority of lawmakers pass tax increases.

Assembly Bill 46 would hand the power to the local school board to raise sales and property taxes within Washoe County by an estimated $20 million a year for school maintenance. The bill, if passed, would require a simple majority vote from the Legislature. The taxes would be implemented following a vote by the school board.

The two-thirds majority requirement, put in the state’s constitution by voters in 1996, has stymied efforts to raise taxes at the Nevada Legislature for nearly two decades.

Traditionally, school boards have gone to voters to pass tax increases to pay for school construction and maintenance. But in recent years, voters in Washoe and Clark have shot down tax increase questions for school buildings.

Advocates for AB 46 say the bill is meant to be narrowly tailored to address an immediate funding crisis in Washoe County, which has a high number of older buildings.

Advocates, which include Republican and Democratic lawmakers from Washoe County, have been working on the bill for over a year. Business groups and labor unions testified in support of the measure.

But still, Gov. Brian Sandoval, who is from Reno, has not backed it.

“The Governor has deep concerns about precedent setting legislation which would give school districts the ability to increase sales and property taxes without a vote by the people,” his office said in a statement about the bill.

He added that he’s concerned about the state of the schools in Washoe County.

As originally introduced, the bill would have required the Washoe County Commission to increase sales tax in the county, which is anchored by Reno, by a quarter of one percent and slightly increase property taxes. It would have required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

But an amended version, presented Tuesday at the hearing by Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, would allow the Washoe County School Board to pass a resolution to increase taxes.

Because it is “enabling legislation”-- so-called because it enable another government entity to raise taxes-- the new bill would only require a simple majority, according to a legal opinion by the Legislative Counsel Bureau.

Clark County School District officials did not testify on the bill. But a district official made clear Clark County School District would also like the power to tax.

“We certainly believe that authority entrusted to trustees in Washoe County should be extended to Clark County, the largest county in the state,” said Joyce Haldeman, associate superintendent for Clark County School District and the lead representative for the district in Carson City. “We support Washoe's initiative and hope that legislators will provide the same opportunity for CCSD trustees to engage with the community and come up with solutions that work for Clark County.”

Clark County School District put a capital improvement tax question in front of voters in November, but it was handily defeated.

The Legislature has passed “enabling legislation” in prior years that gave county commissions the power to pass a tax. Additionally, school boards and county commissions can put tax questions to voters.

But this is the first time power would be given directly to a school board to raise taxes.

Nevada does not have “home rule,” which means local government bodies, including counties, cities and school districts, have to seek permission from the Legislature to do many things, including raising taxes and even towing vehicles from parking lots.

Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, called the school maintenance issue in Washoe County a “crisis.” She also said it was an equity issue, since Clark County School District had more revenue streams available to it during the boom years, because of past legislation.

In an interview prior to the hearing, she was asked about Sandoval’s apparent neutrality on the issue.

“We all should feel an obligation to make this right,” she said. “We need his support to make this happen for the children in Washoe County.”

Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Reno, said he understood the governor waiting for the process in the Legislature to play out. Asked whether Republicans would override a Sandoval veto on the measure, Hickey said he hadn’t thought that far ahead.

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