Lawmakers in Nevada are set to cut more than a billion dollars from the state’s general fund in order to cover a budget shortfall created by the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, proposed cuts to the state’s public education system are causing some consternation.
Normally, when lawmakers are in session, Nevada’s Legislative Building is filled with people. Lobbyists and members of the public crowd halls and viewing galleries, while lawmakers and staff quickly shuffle between offices, committee rooms and the floors of the Assembly and Senate.
But like everything in 2020, things are far from normal.
Now, in an effort to practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the halls are quiet, most committee rooms sit empty and dark, and lawmakers have moved all business to the floor of their respective chambers.
Outside the legislature, the scene could not be any more different. Hundreds of demonstrators stood outside on the edge of the Capitol grounds, criticizing lawmakers for closing the session to the public.
Cheryl Hensley is a teacher at Van Gorder Elementary School in Sparks. Wearing a red shirt and mask, and holding a sign that read “Special Session Shuts Out Teacher Voices,” Hensley said schools will face enough challenges in the fall keeping students and staff safe from the threat of the coronavirus.
“Especially with the pandemic and us going back to school, it’s going to look a lot differently in classes, and we need all the budget we can for education,” Hensley said.
In total, Nevada is facing an approximate $1.15 billion shortfall to the state's roughly $4.5 billion general fund. While state leaders have made it a priority to keep the state’s current base level of funding intact, the governor is recommending roughly $156 million in cuts to supplemental K-12 education programs, among many others.
Those proposed cuts include more than $16 million from class size reduction initiatives. Another $31 million would be cut from incentives to hire new literacy specialists under the state’s Read By Three program, and there would be a complete emptying of the state's $4.5 million teacher supply reimbursement account.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert said the cuts will force districts to make tough decisions.
“Reduced funding means that we will have to think, spend and plan differently than ever before. We need to leverage our collective capacity and resources to do what’s best for our students and educators in both the short and long term,” Ebert explained.
In addition to cuts to K-12 programs, lawmakers are also eyeing more than $100 million in cuts to the Nevada System of Higher Education, the agency that oversees the state’s community colleges and universities. According to the analysis recently released by the Governor’s Finance Office, those cuts include reduced operating costs, hiring freezes, the repurposing of capital funds as well as furloughs for all NSHE academic and administrative faculty.
“These reductions are in addition to an estimated $120.9 million impact [that the] COVID-19 pandemic will have on institution revenues and additional expenditures,” said System Chancellor Thom Reilly.
Many education advocates, teachers’ groups and even lawmakers see the cuts as preventable. Among other recommendations, some have suggested new taxes as a way to stave off reductions in education funding.
One proposal that’s drawn interest as of late, is a complete overhaul of the state’s mining taxes which are set, in part, by the state constitution. However, Governor Sisolak has already voiced opposition to any new tax created in this special session, saying he didn’t think revenues would be generated quickly enough to help the state now.
And for Speaker of the Assembly Jason Frierson, that means lawmakers may have no other choice at this point.
“I think we have an interest in mitigating and spreading out the pain throughout the state the best we can, and we’re going to continue to hear from them about ways that we can mitigate it,” Frierson said. “But I think that we still need to look at moving some shelves around to figure out how we can minimize the impact that the cuts are going to have.”
As a note of disclosure, KUNR’s license is held by the Board of Regents to the Nevada System of Higher Education and all KUNR staff members are employees of the state.