Déjà vu all over again -- education and tax policy will be the battleground issues for Nevada, according to Gov. Brian Sandoval and his Democratic opposition’s State of the State addresses Wednesday night.
Sandoval largely earned his occasional nickname of “Gov. Sunny,” telling the 63 members of the Nevada Legislature that the state has created almost 30,000 jobs in two years, that unemployment rates (at 10.8 percent, still the nation’s highest) are falling faster here than in almost any other state and that things are looking up from the battering that the state has taken in the Great Recession.
“We are emerging from the worst economic crisis of a generation,” he said. State revenues are growing because the economy is growing, Sandoval said.
He has proposed a $6.5 billion two-year budget, about $300 million more than the last two-year budget. It’s not clear where that money will come from, since the projections from the state’s Economic Forum are about $700 million short of that number.
And Sandoval wants to cut taxes for 2,700 businesses, increase funding for K-12 and higher education, increase job-training programs in high schools, bump up spending for English-language instruction for non-native speakers and make economic development investments in the state.
He promised to bring all-day kindergarten to almost all at-risk schools by 2015 -- half of all schools in Nevada, still short of the 100 percent of schools that the Democrats would like to see.
Sandoval asked lawmakers to bring legislation to allow online poker to his desk within 30 days, an alternative to the federal legislation that appears dead.
The governor also opened the door for a voucher-like program that would appear to support private schools -- fulfilling the Republican agenda of providing alternatives to traditional public schools. Sandoval’s proposal would give tax credits to businesses that give scholarships to students who switch from at-risk public schools to private schools. That will be opposed by public-school advocates who will fear reduced funding from the tax breaks and potential indirect support for religious-based schooling.
Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis provided the Democratic response. Noting that Sandoval called for education and economic growth to benefit Nevada’s high school class of 2023 -- Sandoval projected photos of today’s second-graders while making his point -- Denis asked, “What about the graduating class of 2015?”
Denis warned that the governor’s proposal to rely on sales taxes instead of businesses taxes would shift the tax burden from business to the middle class.
“Taxes are too high on the middle class and the poor,” Denis said. And he criticized Sandoval’s modest increases in education spending, arguing that those increases would not erase $300 million slashed from the K-12 budget in the last biennium. He said more funding is needed to address pressing issues in Clark County, such as students in some overcrowded classrooms being forced to sit on the floor.
One issue Denis and Sandoval agreed upon: Denis thanked the governor for accepting the funding and participation in increased Medicaid support via President Obama’s Affordable Care Act -- better known as Obamacare.
Sandoval said the ACA would provide 78,000 more Nevadans with health care, save the Nevada general fund $25 million over the next two years, add 8,000 new health-care jobs and pump a half-million dollars into state economy.
But Sandoval, in a nod to the Republican base, insisted that he would retain the ability to pull out of the ACA deal in the future.