Battle lines drawn ahead of special legislative session

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CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Brian Rippet, a science teacher from Stateline, is furious that Nevada's legislative building will be closed to the public when lawmakers convene for a special session Wednesday to balance the state's budget amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Rippet, who also serves as president of the Nevada State Education Association, won't be in the building. But he isn't going far. He and other teachers plan to line Carson Street outside the Legislature sporting “Red for Ed” face-coverings and standing six feet apart, hoping to deter lawmakers from passing deep cuts to state schools.

Though they will be locked out of the Legislature, teachers like Rippet — as well as lobbyists, state workers, and industry leaders — are mobilizing to defend their interests as lawmakers consider slashing spending and potentially increasing taxes to compensate for a projected $1.2 billion revenue shortfall.

Nevada is one of four states with a Legislature that meets biennially. The state constitution allows either the governor or legislative leaders to convene a special session in “extraordinary occasions,” and they have done so five times in the last decade. In special session, lawmakers can only address a narrow set of issues outlined in an official proclamation announcing the session.

Gov. Steve Sisolak announced late Tuesday that the special session would begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday and be limited strictly to budgetary issues.

“Once the budget shortfall is addressed and the special session is concluded, the Governor plans to issue a subsequent proclamation for the legislature to consider policy items that rise to the extraordinary occasion of a special session,” Sisolak's spokeswoman Meghin Delaney said in a news release.

After lawmakers finish addressing the budget, Sisolak intends to issue another proclamation for a back-to-back special session that addresses calls for police reform, Delaney said.

Few places have been hit as hard as Nevada by the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic fallout. The state levies no personal income tax on residents and instead relies heavily on tax revenue from its gambling and hospitality industries to underwrite its $11.5 billion yearly budget.

More than one out of every five adults in Las Vegas work in the leisure and hospitality industries. As visitor volume has plummeted, unemployment has skyrocketed. At 25%, Nevada’s unemployment rate was the nation’s highest in May.

A budget report released Monday by Sisolak warned that Nevada would be “forced to take deep cuts in services and programs designed to help many of those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic," sowing fear among both anti-tax crusaders and beneficiaries of state spending.

The Democrat-controlled Legislature is likely to approve most of Sisolak’s proposal.

Rippet, the education association leader, not only intends to fight cuts, but also advocate for targeted appropriations to allow schools to deal with unforeseen pandemic-related expenses.

“The pandemic has created a whole new situation for schools outside their normal zone of operation,” he said. “We can’t have schools spend 10 to 15% of their per-student allocation on safety measures.”

Sisolak's proposal would ax $156 million from the K-12 education budget by scrapping class-size reduction initiatives, teacher incentives, school safety spending and reading and career programs.

The proposal would also slash $233 million from the Department of Health and Human Services' budget by cutting programs for mental health and seniors. The proposal would cut reimbursement rates for the state’s almost 700,000 Medicaid recipients and limit dentistry, physical therapy and other specialty care services.

Sisolak's proposal balances the state budget without requiring any tax increases or federal relief dollars and says the special session won't be the ideal time to pass new taxes. But it hints that the severity of cuts could be blunted either if the U.S. Congress passes another installment of pandemic assistance, if the Legislature expands existing revenue sources by raising taxes, or if economic recovery occurs faster than expected.

“If that financial support materializes, or if our State revenues recover faster than expected, as Governor, my priorities for restoring funding focus on health care, education and supporting our State workforce to ensure we can deliver the services Nevadans rely on,” Sisolak said.

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, a Las Vegas Democrat, the lawmakers were not considering cuts lightly and highlighted the unique characteristics of Nevada's part-time citizen legislature.

As they navigate the state's revenue shortfall, lawmakers “are juggling work responsibilities, worrying about our children’s access to education, have family members who have been laid off, know neighbors who are hungry, and have friends who are worried about getting sick," he said.

Although an official proclamation regarding criminal justice has yet to be released, reform advocates are already pushing lawmakers to reform police governing use-of-force and officer discipline.

J.D. Klippenstein, the executive director of the Northern Nevada-based racial and economic justice advocacy group ACTIONN, signed onto a letter backing the reform ideas with a group of other community organizations.

He hopes lawmakers will pass bills to strengthen officer training requirements and remove barriers to transparency when misconduct allegations arise as an absolute minimum, but is concerned they may try to spotlight police reform to detract attention from budget cuts that will affect Nevada’s most vulnerable.

“My hope is that it's not just performative or a surface-level response to the moment … It’s a really poor argument to say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but then defund the schools Black students are in and defund services in these communities,” he said.

———

Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

AP reporter Ken Ritter contributed reporting from Las Vegas.


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