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September 26, 2017

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Sandoval: ESA talks went ‘as far as they could,’ not worth a government shutdown

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Scott Sonner / AP

Gov. Brian Sandoval talks to reporters before signing a series of budget bills while flanked by legislative leaders Monday, June 5, 2017, in Carson City. From left, Assembly Minority Leader Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas; Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas; and Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas.

CARSON CITY — Calling Education Savings Accounts the “elephant in the room,” Gov. Brian Sandoval on Monday signed a budget for K-12 schools.

Senate Bill 544 and several other budget bills were signed on the last day of the session after the Legislature passed a pot tax and other pieces of legislation caught up in the ESA funding fight. One part of the deal expanded Opportunity Scholarships, a program that offers tax credits to certain businesses that donate to scholarship organizations.

“I’m really pleased with the result, with the $20 million that’s going into the Opportunity Scholarships,” he said before a Monday news conference to sign four budget bills. “Obviously I’m disappointed. I proposed $60 million for the Education Savings Accounts and it didn’t work out. And it was the best we could do given the politics of the session, but $20 million is going to go a long way.”

The ESA program would give Nevada families taxpayer dollars to move their children from public to private schools.

Assembly Minority Floor Leader Paul Anderson, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Majority Leader Sen. Aaron Ford, all of Las Vegas, stood behind Sandoval while he signed four budget bills: Assembly Bill 517 on state employee pay; Assembly Bill 518 on the civil government budget; Senate Bill 545 to authorize expenditures; and the K-12 bill.

“We’ve made unprecedented investments in our education system,” Sandoval said. “The elephant in the room obviously is the education savings accounts. That is the something that I talked about in my State of the State. We worked hard and we just couldn’t come to an agreement.”

The Assembly gave final OK on Monday, the last day of the session, to a pot tax, the expansion to Opportunity Scholarships, and a capital improvements budget. Members of the Senate started moving the bills late Sunday after striking a deal that starved funding for ESAs.

Republicans had pushed for funding the accounts by blocking the pot tax and capital budget, which required two-thirds majority votes to pass. Sandoval said the bottom line was that there was no appetite for him to shut down government.

“The conversation with regard to the ESAs went as far as they could,” he said. “At the end of the day, there was just that decision made that we couldn’t reach a deal. There are so many other consequences to essentially shutting down government in terms of not having a balanced budget. I was convinced that the Democrats weren’t going to change their mind and you have to accept that. In addition, with the $20 million, that was a good result, not my preferred result, but a great result for Nevada’s children.”

Opportunity Scholarships will get this one-time boost in available tax credits under Senate Bill 555. The measure passed the Assembly 34-8, with Democrats representing the no votes.

Sandoval said expanding a program that quickly met capacity would help hundreds if not thousands of kids and parents in being able to choose their education.

“The Opportunity Scholarship program is tried and proven and is benefiting students across the state of Nevada,” Sandoval said.

The pot tax, Senate Bill 487, passed the Assembly 32-9 on Monday. Eight Republicans voted no on that measure as well as the capital improvement budget, Senate Bill 546.

Assemblyman Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas, voted to move all three pieces of legislation out of the Assembly. He said early Monday that the ESA fight would continue into further sessions.

“If you look at the growth and the expansion of school choice in Nevada, it’s a path that Nevadans want,” he said.

The Legislature also reached a deal on transparency for pharmaceutical companies that produce insulin and certain other diabetes drugs, a policy sponsored by Sen. Yvanna Cancela, D-Las Vegas. Sandoval vetoed the original measure, Senate Bill 265, before many of its provisions were incorporated into a measure sponsored by Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Henderson.

One key difference that didn’t make it into Roberson’s Senate Bill 539 was the requirement that pharmaceutical companies tell the public 90 days before insulin prices go up.

“By requiring advance notice of a change in price before the change is effective, this bill may create a perverse incentive for some market participants to manipulate supply in order to maximize profits,” Sandoval said in his veto message. “SB265 would inevitably provide purchasers, wholesalers and secondary distributors of health care products an even greater financial motivation to restrict access to health care products.”

The governor has said that he intends to sign Roberson’s bill.

“I think both sides would say that we’ve accomplished much,” Sandoval said of the session. “On the same token we didn’t get everything that we would have liked to have had, but that is the nature of the process.”

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