January 18, 2017 – By Ray Hagar, Nevada Newsmakers
A veteran political scientist pushed back when a leading lobbyist at the Nevada Legislature suggested that implementing Education Savings Accounts — which is part of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s $8.1 proposed biennium budget — could become a reality through compromise at the 2017 Nevada Legislature.
“The ESA proposal will be the partisan topic this session,” said Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College. “I think it is dead on arrival with the democratically controlled Senate and Assembly.”
Sandoval has proposed that $60 million should go to the program that would allow Nevada parents to receive up to $5,100 annually to send their child to private or parochial schools. The ESA bill became law through the 2015 Legislature but its funding mechanism was struck down by the Nevada Supreme Court, thus forcing a new bill to be considered in 2017.
Yet Mary Lau, CEO and president of the Nevada Retail Association, predicted during a Nevada Newsmakers broadcast that compromise will be reached, despite the Democratic majorities in both houses.
“It is compromisable and we will see what Ford and Frierson extract for that,” she said, speaking of Assembly Speaker-designate Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, and Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas.
Democrats, however, have a long-held belief that tax money should not be used to fund private education, Lokken noted.
“With the ESAs, the Democrats see $60 million that could be going to public education,” he said. “It is potentially compromisable but I think there is a significant principle here of allowing a door to open. They (Democrats) have the numbers to stop it. Why would they want to let this elephant in the room?”
The debate over ESAs could mushroom into a national debate with the Trump Administration taking control of the federal government, especially the Department of Education, Lau said.
“Suddenly, not all politics is local either,” Lau said. “If Trump’s pick (for Secretary of Education, Betsy) Devoss (is confirmed), she comes in very favorable toward ESAs. And then the dialogue changes.”
The ESAs could be the GOP hill-to-die-for, Lau said.
“It will be interesting because for the Republicans (in Nevada), that (ESA) is what they voted on, that is what they ran on and that is what they are supporting.”
The ESAs are an an issue that has also attracted the attention of the state treasurer and Nevada attorney general — both Republicans.
Last week, a district judge agreed with Nevada AG Adam Laxalt that the state treasurer can continue to accept applications for the ESA program.
Also, Treasurer Dan Schwartz said the $60 million Sandoval has ear-marked for the ESA program is not enough.
““The number is low; especially considering all those parents that we believe will apply once the uncertainty is removed,” Schwartz said in a prepared statement.
That drew the Twitter ire of Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas.
“Since @dan4nevada (Schwartz Twitter handle) has had literally nothing to do with ESAs being passed into law, maybe he should keep his mouth shut,” Roberson tweeted.
If there is not enough funding for all of the families that have already registered for the ESAs, some have mentioned that “means testing” or cut offs for parents with higher incomes could be implemented.
Those parents who would be disqualified from the program for those reasons may not go quietly, Lau suggested.
“If the people that signed up and are basically get disqualified because of the means test, then you are really going to hear a lot of problems and whining about this,” she said.