Nevada Legislature pumps brakes after COVID-19 case reported
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada lawmakers pumped the brakes on their emergency special session Saturday, a day after someone in the legislative building tested positive for COVID-19.
After four days of interrogating finance officials, school districts and state agency leaders, both chambers decided to reconvene Monday morning to give individuals time to get tested and staff members time to answer a long list of questions that lawmakers have asked in hearings.
The Legislature enjoyed full attendance in the early days of Nevada’s special session, which Gov. Steve Sisolak convened so lawmakers could balance the state budget amid a projected $1.2 billion shortfall stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
A day after staff announced an asymptomatic individual who had been in the legislative building had tested positive, 13 Nevada lawmakers chose to participate remotely in the proceedings.
The group of lawmakers, which included 12 Democrats and one Republican, participated in hearings on bills to balance Nevada’s budget remotely, which they were able to do after both chambers suspended requirements for in-person voting at the start of the session amid Republican objections.
The state Senate and Assembly heard testimony about bills that would require state workers to accept salary freezes and routine furloughs and require mining businesses to submit taxes ahead of schedule.
It remains unclear the extent to which Democratic leaders in the Senate and Assembly are considering raising taxes to plug Nevada’s $1.2 billion budget hole.
Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, said Thursday he and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, had discussed seeking new revenue with Gov. Steve Sisolak and their Republican counterparts.
The budget bills put forth thus far do not include a tax increase. Instead, lawmakers propose using a combination of reserve funds, federal relief dollars and targeted cuts to compensate for a projected $1.16 billion revenue shortfall.
Cuts proposed would reduce funding for K-12 education — including for programs that support literacy and career development — by $157 million and for higher education by $110 million. They would cut $233 million from the Department of Health and Human Services through cutting funding for mental health programs, limiting services and reducing reimbursement rates for Medicaid recipients, and other measures.
In the state Senate, lawmakers heard testimony about collecting taxes from mining businesses early, much like they did after the Great Recession. Left-leaning activists hoping to stave off cuts to healthcare and education have targeted the mining industry and pushed lawmakers to pursue policies more aggressive than accelerating tax schedules.
In the Assembly, lawmakers heard public comment from state workers opposed to a bill that would freeze their salaries and require them to take one-day-per-month furloughs.
The action would save a projected $66 million. State workers who called in to comment on the bill said they and many of their colleagues were still reeling from cuts put in place after the Great Recession and shouldn’t bear the brunt of the state’s budget woes.
The Assembly questioned Clark County Education Association President John Vellardita over an amendment to an education funding bill. The amendment would allow large districts like Clark County, home to Las Vegas, to carry over dollars to shore up reductions to programs that support students in underperforming schools.
Lawmakers were skeptical about the union’s proposal, particularly because Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara said it wasn’t necessary. Vellardita said if lawmakers can’t pass bills to provide additional revenue, schools should be able to carry over unspent funds from prior years and allocate them to compensate for program cuts.
“This is not a bill about a clawback for the Clark County school district to secure money for schools,” Vellardita said. “This is really about — given the circumstances, with no revenue, with these cuts that look like they’re going to be passed — doing the right thing for the most disadvantaged kids.”
Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, said passing a bill specifically for Clark County amid a statewide budget crisis didn’t make sense. “If we can’t come up with a comprehensive solution to address everything in this state, then I don’t think it would be fair to the kids in the other 16 counties,” she said.
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.