Published Online: February 18, 2010

Bigger Education Cuts Irk Nev. Lawmakers

Legislative leaders said Wednesday they will try to minimize the blow of bigger budget cuts to public schools proposed by Gov. Jim Gibbons to help close an $880 million budget shortfall.

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, said the additional 1.75 percent salary cut on top of 10 percent across the board already proposed by the Republican governor would mean thousands of teacher layoffs and 50-student class sizes in high schools.

"What you're dealing with there is nothing but crowd control," said Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, which represents about 28,000 teachers statewide.

Gibbons also proposes eliminating collective bargaining for local governments and school districts, and state mandates for class sizes and full-day kindergarten.

Total cuts would cost K-12 education about $200 million in the biennium that ends June 30, 2011.

"The key to economic recovery is our schools," Buckley said, adding, "To hear all the public outcry and then cut the schools more, to me makes no sense," she said.

Heath Morrison, Washoe County schools superintendent, said adding one student to each classroom in first through 12th grades cost about 100 teaching jobs.

Gibbons this week called for a special legislative session next week and outlined proposals for filling the state's budget hole. The added cuts to education took lawmakers by surprise.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, on Tuesday said the governor's proposal would "drive the state into a full blown depression."

Lawmakers hope to reconcile budget issues with the governor's office before the special session begins Tuesday.

"I think the goal is to have one plan," Buckley said. But if negotiations with the administration break down, "there will be two."

Buckley said she was pleased by some of the governor's recommendations, such as going after uncollected insurance premium taxes.

Others, such as Gibbons' proposal to allow Michigan company for a $30 million guarantee to set up highway cameras to nab vehicle registration and insurance scofflaws, or eliminate collective bargaining — a move Gibbons said would free local governments and school districts from negotiated contract obligations — likely won't be considered.

While the governor sets the agenda for a special session, lawmakers are not obligated to accept or even act on his proposals.

Gibbons has said that because education, both public schools and higher education, account for about 52 percent of general fund spending, they must be included in budget reductions.

Nevada university and college administrators have said 10 percent cuts totaling $147 million likely would mean higher tuition and closure of some programs or entire campuses. The added 1.75 percent reduction would mean another $9.5 million.

A decade-old scholarship program established with tobacco settlement money in 1999 that has helped tens of thousands of students attend state universities and community college also is in jeopardy.

Gibbons proposed "sweeping" $5 million from the Millennium Scholarship fund, along with $7.6 million from unclaimed property that would otherwise go to the scholarship program. It's one of about 50 reserve accounts the administration wants to funnel into the general fund coffers.

Gibbons spokesman Dan Burns said the taking wouldn't abolish the program.

"It was never going to last forever," he said of the scholarship fund. "It'll provide the same number of scholarships in this biennium. The only thing that could be impacted is the length of the Millennium Scholarship program.

"In 2011 the Legislature can fund it again," Burns said.

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