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September 15, 2019

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Analysis: Venomous politics once again surround ESAs in Nevada

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Protesters and Nevada lawmakers gather in opposition to Education Savings Accounts on March 20, 2017, in Carson City. In June, the Democrat-controlled Legislature defeated Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed $60 million in funding for ESAs.

Nevada’s Education Savings Accounts were born and reared amid heated political rancor, and on Monday it appeared the controversial voucher-type program was on its way to dying in a similarly contentious manner.

ESAs were created by Republican lawmakers in 2015 to provide state funding for parents wanting to send their children to private schools, with the GOP championing it as a pet issue that gave Nevadans greater control over their children’s education. But Democrats abhorred the accounts, arguing that they would funnel funding out of public education and would be especially damaging to low-income schools.

The program never really took off, as it was short-circuited in court and then was deprived of funding in 2017 by Democratic leadership. The more than 10,000 Nevadans who had signed up for ESAs were left in limbo.

Cut to Monday, though, and ESAs once again reared their head. This time it happened in a bit of late-session political jousting, with Senate Democrats voting to axe the program after trying and failing to get a compromise with the GOP on a key bill to extend the state payroll tax.

The Assembly approved the tax bill as it came over from the Senate, meaning the session ended with the bill on its way to Gov. Steve Sisolak complete with the ESA death sentence provision.

With the program’s future hanging in the balance, here’s a look at its (possibly) short and (definitely) turbulent life.

Nov. 4, 2014: Nevada swings bright red, as Republicans win all six state leadership positions and gain control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in decades. Democrats’ turnout is lackluster — the field of candidates at the top of the ticket is largely uncompetitive, helping contribute to their malaise.

March 2015: Republicans introduce a bill to create ESAs, the first of its type in that it contains no income caps for eligibility. Democrats accuse Republicans of ramming it through the legislative process without proper hearings.

June 20, 2015: Sandoval signs the bill into law. Among those who praise the development are Betsy DeVos, now Donald Trump’s education secretary but then the chair of the American Federation for Children. “Nevada is one state that is leading the way in creating innovative programs and approaches to educating its students,” she says in a statement. “We applaud Gov. Sandoval and the Nevada Legislature for their commitment to students and providing each and every one of them with a quality education. We have seen how the education revolution is influencing policy makers across the country, and we are thrilled to see Nevada embrace and champion innovative reform.”

Aug. 27, 2015: The ACLU files a lawsuit challenging the law, claiming it violates the state’s prohibition against using public money for religious purposes by providing funds that can be used for tuition at parochial schools. A second similar lawsuit is filed a month later.

Sept. 29, 2016: The Nevada Supreme Court strikes down the program, ruling its funding method unconstitutional.

Nov. 8, 2016: Democrats regain control of both chambers of the Legislature.

Jan. 19, 2017: Gov. Brian Sandoval includes $25 million for ESAs in his proposed budget.

May and June 2017: Funding for the program sparks partisan warfare late in the session, with Republicans attempting to secure it by blocking the capital budget and a tax on marijuana. But the Democratic leadership digs in. Late-night budget negotiations end with the Legislature approving no funding for ESAs but $20 million in tax credits for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides the credits to certain businesses that donate to scholarship organizations.

June 5, 2017: Sandoval throws in the towel on getting the ESA funding, calling the issue the “elephant in the room” and saying it’s not worth a government shutdown. He declines to call a special session on the issue.

Nov. 6, 2018: Sisolak leads a parade of Democrats elected to constitutional and legislative offices, with the Democrats strengthening their majorities in the Senate and Assembly.

Feb. 4, 2019: As lawmakers go into this year’s session, ESAs are not expected to get much if any attention based on the outcome of the 2018 mid-terms. And they don’t, until ...

Monday: The drama over the payroll tax vote was based on a dispute between Democrats and Republicans over whether it would require a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate not to allow the Modified Business Tax rate to begin sunsetting. Democrats obtained a ruling from the Legislative Counsel Bureau that a simple majority vote was sufficient; Republicans said the ruling was hogwash and threatened to sue if the measure passed. (Democrats already have a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, so the issue over the vote was moot there.) Democratic leaders tried to make the measure more palatable to Republicans by steering the tax revenue toward teacher salaries and Opportunity Scholarships. But GOP senators wouldn’t bite, and all eight voted against the bill. Cue the latest and possibly last clash over ESAs, in which Democrats played hardball. After bringing it back for reconsideration, they removed the two-thirds requirement but added the ESA provision — an apparent attempt to strong-arm at least one Republican into swallowing the change on the majority in order to save ESAs.

It didn’t work either, other than to really irk the GOP. Afterward, Senate Minority Leader James Settlemeyer told reporters there would be a lawsuit if Sisolak signed the bill.

So stay tuned. But given the history of ESA’s, it’s all but certain they’ll produce more fireworks if and when they’re brought up again.