Las Vegas Sun

May 24, 2019

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Southern Nevada Forum:

Looking ahead, legislators talk school funding formula, infrastructure

Special programs in Nevada public schools, including those for English language learners, would get a permanent funding solution if lawmakers follow up on a top policy issue raised Wednesday at this year’s Southern Nevada Forum.

The event brought about 200 community leaders, including many lawmakers, together to discuss top priorities for the Legislature when it reconvenes in 2019. Attendees of the forum met in small groups to discuss needs in health care, education, economic development, governance reform and transportation and infrastructure.

Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, helped lead the education discussion, and said that making a weighted funding formula permanent for schools will likely be a bipartisan issue moving forward. Weighted funding could mean more dollars for students who are learning English, require special education services and those eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The Legislature approved a one-time weighted funding formula in 2017, and Denis said lawmakers need to find a long-term solution.

“The funding formula ... is one that everybody’s going to want, that we need to fix and it’s definitely a high priority for Southern Nevada,” Denis said, noting that most of the state’s students are in the Las Vegas Valley.

Lawmakers and stakeholders who signed up for the focus groups during the event will meet to discuss ideas before the forum as a whole picks priorities to become bills. Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, said the forum’s groups met about once a month in prior off-session years before presenting their top ideas for the entire forum to consider.

“This has been one of the most positive things that I think we’ve done over the last four or five years,” Woodhouse said. “By having the Southern Nevada Forum bringing us together, Assembly, Senate, Republicans, Democrats, business, education and then of course the other committees with economic diversification and transportation and good governance, we can better represent what Southern Nevada needs, because we are the majority of this state.”

Fuel indexing, which helps pay for infrastructure projects in the state, the commerce tax, which supports education, and the creation of behavioral health regions are some of the policy ideas that started at past forums, became bills and then were signed into law. Woodhouse said regional mental health centers were discussed in forums before the 2015 and 2017 legislatures, and then introduced in Assembly Bill 366 last year.

“If somebody is exhibiting dementia and they live in Eureka, where do they go?” Woodhouse said. “Most often you want people to be able to have care in their home — that’s where they’re most comfortable and they feel most safe. But in a lot of our communities we don’t have that. We’re hoping that by having the regions for mental health that at least they don’t have to go so far.”

Woodhouse worked on education in the forum leading up to the 2017 session. She said she’ll continue to take part in the education group as well as health care, and anticipates the weighted funding formula will be a top priority.

“We need more resources for those children,” she said.

Education Savings Accounts were not specifically brought up in the forum’s education discussion, but one person did want to talk about school choice, Denis said. The forum focuses on bipartisan issues.

Last year ESAs, which aim to help parents send kids to private school, remained unfunded by a Legislature controlled by Democrats, despite calls from some Republicans to block spending bills without ESA money. Lawmakers instead put $20 million toward Opportunity Scholarships, a program that uses private donations to help certain low-income families send students to schools of their choice.

“We’re going to talk about subjects here that we can all agree to talk about and I don’t believe that ESAs (are) something that we’re all going to come to an agreement on,” Denis said. “I doubt that there’s going to be much discussion about ESAs specifically, but as far as choice, we want to have that discussion, so we’ll see where it leads.”

Whether ESAs become an issue in 2019 will depend on the election, said Woodhouse, one of three senators targeted for recall. There are eight Republicans and 10 Democrats in the Senate. Woodhouse and fellow Democrat Nicole Cannizzaro of Las Vegas are facing possible recalls, which are being challenged in court. A third recall attempt targeted Sen. Patricia Farley, an Independent who caucused with Democrats and has decided not to run for re-election for family reasons. Two other Senate seats are vacant.

“I guess we’ll wait and see,” Woodhouse said. “It will depend on the balance (of the Legislature), how the election results turn out.”

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, said lawmakers will also be looking at ways to improve infrastructure and public transportation. New laws passed by the 2017 Legislature give municipalities and certain other groups tools to seek federal dollars for large-scale infrastructure projects such as a light rail system.

“There are groups looking at other cities and other states that have much better infrastructure for public transportation,” Frierson said. “ … When we operate in a biennium, we can only have this conversation once every two years, we often lose out on opportunities. We have to assess how to better get a bang for our buck and get more out of it and be competitive with other states.”

He also said stakeholders need to find ways to prepare the state in the event Congress scuttles all or part of the Affordable Care Act. Congress tried and failed repeatedly last year to deliver on a long-standing Republican promise to repeal and replace the ACA.

Lawmakers in 2017 added an Obamacare requirement to state law that gives women access to 12-month supplies of contraception. Frierson said that with all the uncertainty coming out of Washington, it’s unclear what the state may do. He said it’s important to discuss the issue throughout the year so that the state can be ready to act if needed. The state may have had to step in and find funding if Congress hadn’t approved six years of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“In a state that only meets once every other year, we don’t have the luxury of being able to address it if we’re not ready,” he said. “Most importantly for a forum such as this is to open the door of communication, develop those relationships so once something does come up, we can get on the phone and we know who to call.”