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Education, Healthcare, Guns: The 2019 Legislature

Nevada’s 80th legislative session begins this week. For the next 120 days, lawmakers will debate everything from healthcare reform to education funding to gun control. KUNR’s Senior Political Reporter, Paul Boger, will be in Carson City covering the whole thing. He sat down with KUNR News Director Michelle Billman to talk about some of the major issues that are likely to come up this session.

Paul, now that the 2019 Session is upon us, what are some of the big issues lawmakers are likely to tackle this year?

Well, it’s definitely going to be a busy session; I can tell you that. This is the first time in at least two decades that the Democrats have control of both the legislature and the governor’s office, so we’re likely going to see them take action on a number of their priorities, like healthcare reform, gun control and education.

We already know that Governor Sisolak wants to change the way the state funds education. Since the 60’s, schools have operated under the Nevada Plan – it’s what has dictated per-pupil funding for years. However, there are arguments that the current system is antiquated and it doesn’t do enough to ensure dollars are making it to the classroom. To further complicate the system, lawmakers in recent years have appropriated money for education programs outside the Nevada Plan. Sisolak has indicated that he wants to move away from that system toward a weighted student funding formula – one that would give money to schools based on specific student needs. It’s likely going to spark lots of debate, especially once we start talking about equity and the rural/urban divide.

Healthcare is also going to be something we’re going to watch closely. Last session, lawmakers passed a Medicaid buy-in bill that would have allowed individuals to pay into the state’s healthcare program. That was vetoed by then-Governor Brian Sandoval. Democratic leaders are already signaling that may come back for consideration.

Of course, gun control is going to come up. Governor Sisolak has already called for a ban on bump stocks, the device used during the 10/1 Las Vegas shooting. There’s also going to be renewed efforts to bolster the state’s beleaguered background check law, so we’ll see what happens there, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

We can also expect to see action on the state’s renewable energy mandate, pot regulations, and the state’s new motor voter law, among other things.

One of the major points made by Governor Sisolak during his State of the State address was a 'no new taxes' pledge. How likely is it he’ll be able to fulfill that promise?

You know, it’s tough to say. No new tax proclamations have come back to hurt others in the past, but speaking to Democratic leaders in the legislature, there doesn’t seem to be any desire to create new revenue streams.

Now, that being said, the governor’s budget calls for significant increases to education funding, so that money is going to have to come from somewhere. To be fair, some of that money will come from the excise taxes on pot, but marijuana taxes only account for one percent of the state’s total revenue.

But more to the point, Sisolak’s proposed budget doesn’t include any new taxes. What it does do is prevent some taxes like Nevada’s modified business and the government services taxes tacked onto vehicle registrations from sunsetting. In other words, those taxes were scheduled to lower at the end of the fiscal year, but now it seems like those may become permanent.

There has also been talk that lawmakers may take a look at changing the way property taxes work. For years, cities and counties have argued that the state’s rules on tax abatements and caps are hurting municipalities. Now, I don’t see lawmakers taking any big swings at that issue this session, but they might create an interim committee or study group to look at the problem.

Should we expect any major fireworks? Is any part of this agenda controversial?

For Republicans, there were a few parts of the governor’s agenda that may be a sticking point, including raising the minimum wage and giving state employees the ability to collectively bargain.

For years, Republican, in general, have been fierce in their assertion that increasing the state’s minimum wage laws, even gradually, would hurt the state’s ability to attract jobs and bolster the economy, yet the governor and many Democratic lawmakers have talked about raising the minimum wage for years. Republicans are likely going to try and at least water that legislation down if they can.

Collective bargaining for state employees, however, might be a tougher pill for the GOP to swallow. In Nevada, city and county employees, as well as teachers, have been able to collectively bargain for years – now the governor (who was a Clark County Commissioner for years) wants to extend that same right to state employees by allowing them to get together to negotiate wages and benefits. However, Republicans have fought against it, arguing that it’s impossible to project state revenues 10, 15, 20 and 50 years down the road, and that if lawmakers promise state employees too much today, taxpayers may be left holding the bag for unfunded pensions down the road.

So, I think that will be one piece of legislation that may light some fires on the Republican side of the aisle.

As a note of disclosure, KUNR staff are considered state employees and could be affected by changes to the state's collective bargaining laws. 

Paul Boger is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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