Nevada’s Education Savings Account program faces ‘heavy lift’ in Legislature, says leading Reno assemblywoman

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Nevada’s Education Savings Account program — the jewel of the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2015 — will probably be scrapped by Democrats in 2017, now that they control both house of the Legislature, a leading Northern Nevada Democrat said Thursday.

The ESA program, which gives parents up to $5,000 toward private school per child if they want to opt out of Nevada’s public education system, stands little chance to pass in the 2017 session, said Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno.

“It’s going to be, as they say, a heavy lift,” Benitez-Thompson said about the survival of the ESA program on Nevada Newsmakers Thursday.

It faces the chopping block because of the state’s estimated $400 million deficit and the Democrats’ philosophical distaste of giving state money to private — and many times — parochial schools, she said.

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“There are a lot of people in my caucus, no matter how you slice it or dice it, are never going to be OK with the concept of taxpayer dollars being directed toward private schools, let alone private, parochial schools,” Benitez-Thompson said. “There are a lot of people who think it violates — especially for parochial — our mandate to separate church and state.”

Gov. Brian Sandoval signed the ESA bill into law in 2015 but the Nevada Supreme Court struck it down in September after finding issue with its funding mechanism.

Veteran Nevadan Journalist Ray Hagar is known for fair and tough reporting and invigorating commentary.
Veteran Nevadan Journalist Ray Hagar is known for fair and tough reporting and invigorating commentary.

That glitch has been fixed in the new GOP-proposed bill for 2017. The ESA bill’s sponsor, Sen. Scott Hammond, R-LV, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that about 8,000 Nevada families want the ESAs and hoped he could find agreement with the Democrats, who hold a 27-15 majority in the Assembly and 12-9 lead in the Senate.

Gov. Sandoval also told the Review-Journal that he plans to put money for the ESA program in his upcoming two-year state budget that he will unveil at his State of the State speech in January.

Some Republicans see hope that Sandoval has already placed the ESA program into his budget. A late-session compromise could be reached to revive the ESA program, said James Smack, Nevada’s chief deputy controller who appeared on Newsmakers’ Thursday pundit panel.

‘There are always interesting compromises that happen at the end of every legislative session,” said Smack, a former RNC committeeman. “And there are going to be things the Democrats who are in control of the senate and Assembly want, maybe a tax increase, maybe additional education spending, perhaps a combination of both that they will still want to get passed. And they are still going to need Republican votes in support of that, so the ESAs could be part of a compromise toward the end of the session.”

The state’s lagging public education system, ranked at the bottom and near bottom of national per-pupil spending rankings, would have to hit a lofty bar before Democrats would consider reviving the ESA program, Benitez-Thompson said.

“There are a lot of people who feel that we have never funded education, even with the tax increases last year, the way it ought to be funded,” Benitez-Thompson said. “So before we can look at designating a pool of money for private schools, we’ve got to come up in the achievement rankings. We’ve got to have our public education system be whole, first.”

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