Promises, promises on ESAs

Commitments matter. Or they should.

So when all members of the state Senate’s Republican caucus tell Nevada Independent reporters they will vote against a budget without Education Savings Accounts, we should take them at their word, right?

“No ESA funding, no budget,” Senate GOP Leader Michael Roberson declared last week, and his caucus members fell in line. So none will vote for a budget without money for a school choice program. As Sean Spicer would put it: Period!

Similarly, when Democratic Senate Leader Aaron Ford responded to Brian Sandoval’s State of the State speech in which the governor made ESAs a priority, he, too, was unequivocal. Ford called the $5,000 public money grants to parents the “wrong priority for Nevada’s kids” and “not fair to Nevada families.”

So all Democrats presumably will refuse to include ESA money in the budget they will send to the governor in late spring. Period!

That was easy. Now I don’t have to spend four months in Carson City because the session is over before it starts. The Republicans won’t vote for a budget without ESAs, the Democrats won’t pass a budget with ESAs, and the governor will veto any budget without ESAs.

I’ll see everybody in July in the capital, when some southern lawmakers start to long for their families and lost income. That is, if everyone can be taken at his or her word.

And therein lies the reason for hope or despair, depending on your perspective: Politicians often speak in absolutes, making promises they don’t intend to -- or don’t know how -- to keep.

The most obvious one, and biennially relevant to the Legislature are those three meaningless words: no new taxes. Those words, or variants, have been uttered many times by pandering pols, only to be broken.

(Brief digression: After the tortuous 2015 session, when many bent or broke their words to pass a $1.5 billion tax increase, everyone assumed 2017 would be a no-tax session. But Sandoval has proposed one of the largest taxes, by percentage, in the state’s history: a 10 percent tax on marijuana sales.)

The posturing on ESAs before the gavel even comes down for Session ’17 reminds me of the no-tax pledges and how little words matter in politics. And it comes surrounding an issue that has become hopelessly partisan – no Democrats voted in 2015 for the ESA law that subsequently was gutted by the state Supreme Court.

Neither party deserves a pass here, either, for its rhetoric since.

Republicans now portraying ESAs as some kind of miracle cure for the state’s perpetually underfunded education system are from the same party that reflexively opposed putting more money into schools for decades. And Democrats wailing about “vouchers” and the end of the public school world are from the same party that had chances to really fix education during the last quarter-century and generally opted for half-measures or none.

Sandoval is the hybrid here, no matter his party affiliation. He is a Republican who believes fervently in school choice after watching Jeb Bush’s success in Florida. But he has the Democratic gene that tells him money can be meaningful in education, if it is apportioned with accountability.

As the governor who can veto any budget without ESAs in a state where the executive branch is almost omnipotent (four months out of 24, lawmakers meet!), Sandoval is the key to resolving the ESA debate. And whether it’s in June or July or August, he will.

“I look forward to building a bipartisan solution to get this done,” Sandoval said in his State of the State speech, encapsulating both his governing ethos and political realities.

I dream of a spirited policy debate over this critical issue, where Democrats have to justify why they are so opposed to helping parents who just want the best education for their kids and Republicans have to show why this policy isn’t a precursor to a dismantling of a public education system they are sworn to keep vibrant. But I am a realist.

The politics here are fascinating, though. Roberson has smartly set the tone for the session by locking his caucus down before the session even begins on the fulcrum for the 120 days. Everything now pivots off this histrionic absolutism.

Can he hold his caucus? He’s a lame duck with higher ambitions, I think, but he showed in 2015 that when he says he is going to do something, he does it.

The bigger question is about Ford, who also is looking higher but who needs to show -- now that his first name is Majority and not Minority -- that he can lead. It’s not just about whether he can hold his caucus, along with newly minted indie Patty Farley, but he needs also to answer the question (just not aloud quite yet): WDTDW? What do the Democrats want?

If he really wants to leave a mark, Ford cannot just end with a list of items that Sandoval would have signed anyhow in exchange for funding ESAs. He needs to be able to show real negotiating skills and true endurance.

The latter quality will answer whether he can hold his caucus, most of which is from the South and will get quite homesick if the session becomes, ahem, a little too special. Whether it’s education funding or social justice or energy policy, Ford must show that he can go toe-to-toe with Roberson and Sandoval.

The Assembly dynamic, of course, is not irrelevant. And the ability of two well-regarded leaders, Speaker Jason Frierson and Minority Leader Paul Anderson, to work together will also be tested, although the Ford-Roberson dynamic seems more potentially incendiary.

Ford already signaled last week to The Nevada Independent that he knows what’s coming: “I believe that Senate and Assembly Democrats and the governor will be able to work through any differences to craft a budget that equitably funds our public schools and provides more choices and accountability to parents.”

Democrats will use the word “choice” a lot because it is powerful and to blunt the GOP rhetoric. There already is plenty of choice in Nevada – charters, home schools – they will say. Fine.

Despite all the saber-rattling, ESAs are coming. Probably not at the $60 million the governor budgeted, but they will be law, either in June or sometime this summer.

The only question remaining is what the Democrats can get in exchange. And that will take commitment.

Jon Ralston is the editor of the The Nevada Independent. He has been a journalist in Nevada for more than 30 years. Contact him at ralston@thenvindy.com