The Nevada Supreme Court on Sept. 29 halted Nevada’s program that would have paid parents to take their children out of public schools.
Justices ruled that the program ran afoul of a state constitutional provision preventing school funds from being diverted to other purposes once they are appropriated for schools. The court approved the program on other grounds that parents and interest groups had raised.
The 2015 enactment of the program by the Nevada Legislature was an unusual instance of putting a conservative proposal into law in virtually its purest ideological form, intentionally striking a blow against public education. It was specifically designed to get parents to remove their children from public schools. Parents whose children are already being homeschooled or are in private schools are not eligible for the grants. Only parents with children in public schools can qualify.
Most of the best private schools in the state are religious, prompting one lawsuit to block the program on separation of church and state grounds, but the court said granting the money to parents who then decide how to spend it launders it sufficiently to avoid that problem. One line in the ruling drew laughter on both sides of the dispute: “It is undisputed that the ESA [education savings account] program has a secular purpose—that of education.”
One quirky aspect of the case is that Nevada’s former right wing U.S. House member and governor, Jim Gibbons, was responsible for the school grants program being enjoined by the Supreme Court.
In 2003, Gibbons sought to exploit anger in some circles over a Nevada Supreme Court ruling dealing with school funds by circulating an initiative petition requiring legislatures to approve public education monies before other spending, and further specifying that once school funding is allocated it cannot be diverted to other purposes. The petition was approved by voters and has had little impact until now. Republicans in 2015, in creating the school grants, did exactly what the Gibbons amendment said not to do. They approved the education budget and then drained money from it for grants.
Supporters of the now-stymied program want Gov. Brian Sandoval—himself a supporter—to add the issue to the agenda of a proposed special session of the legislature planned for this month, so the school grants can be advanced before the November election might increase Democratic strength in the regular February session of the legislature.
Sandoval seemed to be angling to avoid a special session of the newly elected Legislature. The special session is planned to accommodate a casino-demanded Las Vegas stadium. But with opposition to both stadium and special session growing, Sandoval initially sounded reluctant to add another controversial proposal to it. He called the school issue complex, though the same adjective also applies to the stadium.
“Although the court found the current funding mechanism for education savings accounts unconstitutional, there may be a path for a legislative solution,” he said. “However, such a solution is complex and must be well thought out to meet constitutional muster. … I also believe it is important to consult with legislative leadership on this issue as we approach the 2017 legislative session.”
Later in the week he made other comments that were interpreted to mean he might now add the issue to the special session agenda.
In Nevada, state legislators take office immediately after election, so no lame-duck session is possible after the election. Sandoval said he would call the special session no later than Oct. 13. If he waited just 26 days the newly elected lawmakers would be in office.
Many legislators felt that finding $41 million to legally reactivate the school grants program would be difficult. That amount would be needed to cover the number of applicants who have already applied for the $5,100 grants. Those applications come principally from affluent zip codes, since the grants are not enough on their own to cover most private school costs.
If Sandoval adds the school grants to the agenda of the special session, he will be asking legislators to increase both taxes and corporate welfare in successive votes and take positions on two highly polarizing proposals less than a month before election, a prospect that has lawmakers terminally thrilled. The session would offer something to offend everyone on the political spectrum.
The stadium plan was floated by Las Vegas Sands Corp. CEO Sheldon Adelson, Majestic Realty and the Oakland Raiders. Raider executives have pledged to ask for relocation to Nevada if the stadium goes up.
A KTNV News/Rasmussen survey of 800 Nevadans showed 52 percent were opposed to raising room taxes to build the stadium, with 32 percent supporting and 14 percent undecided.
On Sept. 26, a religious community action group in Las Vegas, Nevadans for the Common Good, came out against the proposed room tax hike. It later released another statement, “Seven Hidden Risks in the Stadium Plan.”
Later the same day, the Nevada Taxpayers Association—an influential business group—announced it was also opposing the room tax hike, which would produce $750 million for the stadium project. It saw the Common Good list and raised it by releasing a 16-point list of reasons for its opposition. “We will work to raise these concerns with lawmakers as we prepare for the special session of the legislature,” the statement said.
Columnist Thomas Mitchell last week wrote, “If state lawmakers approve the outlay, that will be $750 million—$268 for every man, woman and child in the state—not being spent on education, on roads, on other public services. Additionally, every dollar spent for tickets to events in the proposed stadium is a dollar that would have been spent buying goods, or at the gaming tables or in restaurants and bars—all of which are taxed. … According to a 2014 economic impact study for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, $140 million of Clark County’s room tax went into the statewide distributive school account, $130 million for parks, recreation and transportation and nearly $80 million to Clark County schools. None of that additional $750 million in tax revenue would be available for those purposes.”
The $750 million is equivalent to about a tenth of state government’s biennial budget.
The remainder of the stadium costs will reportedly be paid by Adelson and family ($650 million) and the Raiders and the National Football League ($500 million).