How many tests are too many? The state wants to find out.

When the pandemic sent students into remote-learning mode last year, the federal government waived standardized testing that normally occurs in the spring.

The decision thrilled some students, parents and educators who bemoan what they perceive as too much testing and not enough instruction time in the school environment. But is that actually the case?

That’s what the Nevada Department of Education has been charged with finding out courtesy of recently passed legislation awaiting the governor’s signature. Consider SB353 an assessment of assessments. 

The legislation directs the department to review the tests students are taking for their educational benefits, their costs and any redundancies in the information, skills or abilities measured. The second half of the bill requires action by the department to adopt regulations that set limits on the time taken from instruction to conduct an assessment as well as the number of assessments administered each school year. If a school district or charter school wanted to administer a test beyond those limits, it would need a waiver approved by the State Board of Education. 

“I think that this will ... go a long way to helping to assuage some of the concerns because we'll have more concrete data about what is happening,” said Jonathan Moore, the state’s deputy superintendent of student achievement. “And then we'll be in a position to support educators and school districts.”

The legislation builds upon a bill passed in the 2017 session — SB303 — that called for an audit of assessments used to monitor student progress. But Moore said the audit only looked at state-mandated assessments, which didn’t yield a full picture of testing happening at the school district level, too.

It has been difficult to say how many assessments students take because it can differ by school or even by child. For instance, schools may be administering MAP Growth tests every few months to measure students’ progress in reading and math. But all public school students in grades three through eight take the Smarter Balanced Assessment, commonly referred to as SBAC tests, in the spring. Students learning English as a second language must take another test known as the WIDA assessment to monitor their mastery of the language. And that’s just a sampling of the tests that exist.

Moore said the department will hire a consultant to conduct the review, which will be done through the lens of the balanced assessment system. In other words, it will take into account the types of assessments given, the frequency of assessments and the data yielded from them and how the information helps inform instruction in the classroom. 

The bill carries an appropriation of $65,364 in the first fiscal year of the biennium and $187,500 in the second year — which would fund the consultant’s work as well as costs associated with adopting regulations.

The Nevada State Education Association submitted written testimony late last month that criticized the prior attempt, saying the final report that stemmed from SB303 “was written with a predetermined result in mind that is out of line with the realities in our classrooms.”

NSEA concluded its support for SB353 by alluding to it as a second chance: “We hope the current Department takes this task more seriously this time, so we can spend less time testing and more time teaching and learning.”

Rebecca Garcia, president of the Nevada PTA, lauded the forthcoming review as a step in the right direction. 

“Obviously, looking at assessments isn’t going to address the plethora of issues with standardized assessments in America,” she said. “But I think it can give some good information to better understand what is of most value here in Nevada.”

While Garcia acknowledges the merits of standardized testing — to gauge students’ needs and provide appropriate instruction — she said her organization receives frequent complaints from parents and teachers concerned about the volume. It’s not uncommon for schools to throw pep rallies or offer rewards as an incentive for students to do well, especially when tests correlate to a school’s rating or teacher evaluations.

The situation, she said, can exacerbate testing anxiety among students.

“If you have kids who struggle with testing, which I do, you suddenly see how difficult that is when the message they’re getting from their school is, ‘You must do well. You must do well,’” she said.

After a hiatus last year, springtime testing returned this year. The U.S. Education Department announced in February that states must administer standardized tests required by federal law, though given the ongoing pandemic, there was some flexibility about how to give those tests. The decision irked hundreds of education researchers who asked newly minted Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to change course, but the administration stood firm, pointing to the need for data about student learning during the pandemic.

Moore said he expects the work tied to SB353 to be completed by the end of the upcoming biennium. He hopes it clears up confusion about testing and leads to efficiencies where possible, eliminating any arbitrary assessments.

“And so if we look at what our summative assessments measure at the end of the year, are the assessments we’re giving truly putting us in a position where we can inform teaching and learning on a daily basis, on an interim basis?” he said.

Lawmakers introduce long-anticipated mining tax bill in final days of session, with industry, progressives on board

Trucks at mine site.

With a little more than 48 hours left before the session must end, lawmakers are introducing a bill that would implement a new tax on the mining industry and a host of other provisions that are part of an apparent session-ending deal expected to prevent proposed constitutional amendments on mining from heading to the ballot.

The bill, AB495, was introduced late Saturday in the Assembly, marking the work product of days of furious, behind-the-scenes negotiations between Democratic legislative leadership, Gov. Steve Sisolak and representatives from the mining industry, teacher’s unions and other powerful political players. It’s been scheduled for a hearing on Sunday.

Introduction of the bill was met with praise, sometimes guarded, by progressive groups, the state mining association and the Clark County Education Association. The measure faces a somewhat perilous path to passage given that it requires a two-thirds majority vote with only two days left in the legislative session.

In an interview late Saturday, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) said he estimated that the bill would raise about $170 million in new tax revenue over the two years of the budget cycle, which along with other included tax changes would allocate more than $300 million to public education by the next biennium. Frierson said passage of the mining tax deal would mean “we don't have ballot measures” on the 2022 ballot modifying the constitutional cap on mining taxes.

“I think this will reflect a compromise that hopefully everyone can live with,” he said.

The measure would create a new excise tax on the gross proceeds of profitable gold or silver mining companies that report gross revenue greater than $20 million annually, at a rate of 0.75 percent on any revenue reported between $20 million and $150 million, and at a 1.1 percent rate at any revenue above $150 million. The bill sets forth a formula on gross revenue computation and deductions that can be counted against the revenue figure in the bill.

Revenue from the new mining excise tax will be temporarily deposited in the state’s general fund and begin to be deposited in the state education fund beginning in July 2023. It sends the state portion of the existing net proceeds of minerals tax into the state education fund instead of the general fund.

In a statement, Nevada Mining Association President Tyre Gray gave a tentative blessing to the proposal, noting the bill would represent a 100 percent increase in “mining’s contributions to the state,” but marked a compromise that only arrived “after deliberative conversation between Governor Sisolak, legislative leadership, and mining.”

“Unlike other recent revenue sources, these dollars will go entirely to education, while also ensuring that Nevadans remain employed, rural counties remain funded, and mining operations remain viable,” he said.

The bill also includes a grab bag of other provisions. It sends $200 million from the state’s allocation of federal COVID-19 relief funds to the Nevada Department of Education for grants that could support programs to compensate for learning loss during the pandemic in a matching funds-style arrangement.

“You leverage some of the school funds that are being allocated directly to the district with these funds to go to Read by Three and things like that,” said Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas).

Roberts and Frierson both said they expected that proposed ballot measures proffered by the Clark County Education Association that would raise the sales and gaming tax would be dropped — Frierson said he expected that a separate bill granting the teacher’s union explicit permission to withdraw the ballot initiatives would be introduced in the coming days.

Roberts said the new mining revenue would go to raise base per-pupil funding.

“It's a move in the right direction. It starts to get us to where we can climb up the ladder on national average for education funding,” Roberts said. “This is all dedicated to the base. And so I think we'll see some positive results.”

The bill calls on the Commission on School Funding, which has helped guide the implementation of a new education funding formula, to investigate possible sources of revenue for public schools and  to submit it to the governor and Legislature by 2023.

The bill lays the groundwork for Medicaid recipients to directly receive reimbursements for personal care services. Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) has long championed that concept to supplement the rate Medicaid already pays for such services.

And in a likely olive branch to Republicans, the bill authorizes the extension of $4.745 million in tax credits for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program — which offers students from low-income households scholarships to attend private schools. Roberts said he expected subsequent legislation would authorize more spending for the program.

The bill also removes language from 2019 that largely blocked new students from enrolling in the scholarship program by limiting it to students who were already enrolled and for whom there was enough money expected to be available to support the student until they graduated.

The measure will also appropriate $600,000 per fiscal year for the Silver State Opportunity Grant, a state-supported needs-based financial aid program for higher education institutions. The bill as written appropriates $6 million per year, but that number will be revised down.

Progressive advocates have long described mining’s tax structure as a sweetheart deal that falls short of the industry paying its fair share. During a special session over the summer, lawmakers introduced three proposed constitutional amendments tinkering with the tax structure, but so far this session, there has been no action on those measures. 

But the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, one of the most prominent voices for changing the tax on mining and a major proponent of one of the resolutions, AJR1**, called the compromise in the bill "a strong start to addressing the privileged position mining has held in Nevada’s tax code until now."

"While we will continue to push for what Nevadans truly deserve, this proposal will address the needs of the people in a meaningful way and allow our state the funding needed to maintain and build on critical public services immediately," said Laura Martin, the group's executive director.

The Nevada State Education Association teacher’s union called the proposed tax “a small down payment on our longstanding request,” but said much more was needed to reach a school funding level they would consider adequate.

“Even counting additional funding, significant new revenue sources will need to be developed to meet the [Commission on School Funding’s] recommendations moving forward,” the group said in a statement. “We hoped more progress would take place during this session.”

Cheers, then jeers: Why the proposed K-12 education funding bill created questions and confusion

A student working on classwork at Pat Diskin Elementary School

What are the fruits of Nevada lawmakers’ efforts to fund K-12 education this year?

Well, that’s difficult to say because they don’t want to talk about fruit at all. They say the two funding formulas — the old Nevada Plan and the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan — do not lend themselves to an apples-to-apples comparison.

Last week, state lawmakers patted themselves on the back for adding roughly $500 million to the education budget. Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), who warned there would be naysayers and skeptics, declared that she had “been waiting a damn long time to put this amount of money into education.”

The celebratory dust had barely settled before questions began emerging. When the large K-12 education funding bill (SB458) dropped earlier this week, education observers noticed a peculiar aspect in the very first section: The total public support for the upcoming biennium will be an estimated $10,204 per pupil the first fiscal year, followed by $10,290 per pupil the next fiscal year. Both figures are lower than the total public support appropriated in the current biennium — $10,227 per pupil for Fiscal Year 2019-2020 and $10,319 for Fiscal Year 2020-2021.

The apparent decrease muddied the water for several days with few clues clarifying the situation. But, late Thursday afternoon, Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) said he had received information from the Legislative Counsel Bureau pointing to ending-fund balances as the culprit. In 2019, under the Nevada Plan, school district and charter schools’ ending-fund balances were calculated into the per-pupil estimate for total public support, Denis said. Moving forward with the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan, ending-fund balances are not calculated into total public support.

It’s a calculation deviation with a large price tag attached to it: For the current biennium, ending-fund balances totaling $283.5 million were included in total public support each year, Denis said. 

So despite similar language describing total public support in SB458 and SB555, the K-12 funding bill passed during the 2019 session, the two aren’t mirror images of each other. It’s unclear what the combined ending-fund balances would have totaled this year, but it likely would have been enough to significantly prop up the per-pupil estimates for total public support.

“This is the highest amount we've ever put in for schools,” Denis said.

Still, portions of the additional $500 million were used to backfill pandemic-related education budget cuts, making it more restoration-oriented than a pure funding infusion. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) couched it as progress during a tough time. 

“The Strip was dark,” he said, referring to the pandemic shutdown of the state’s primary economic engine. “It’s impossible to suggest that we’re not going to have to make some difficult decisions. I think that, quite frankly, it is incredible that we came even close to pre-pandemic spending. And so it’s a good signal moving forward.”

The shift to the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan has also caused meteoric change to many categorical funding programs — such as Class Size Reduction, Read by Grade 3 and Zoom and Victory schools — which are being swept into the larger education funding pot and then redistributed to students. Therein lies another difficulty measuring the 2019 Legislature’s education appropriations with those happening right now in Carson City.

In theory, it will be easier to track moving forward — after this first biennium of fully transitioning from the old funding model to the new one. Then it will be time to cue the appropriate fruit comparisons, or at least that’s how lawmakers envision the process playing out. 

As it stands now, Carlton said comparisons between the upcoming biennium and previous one are “like grapes to watermelon.”

State Superintendent Jhone Ebert pointed to the Commission on School Funding as proof of the complexity of moving away from one finance model and implementing a new one. The advisory body met 22 times during the interim and issued a series of recommendations for how to transition. Still, there’s no crosswalk, so to speak, between the two models.

“It’s natural to ask for a crosswalk — how do you get from where you’re at and to where you're going?” she said. “The fact of the matter is, that’s not how this was developed.”

But the mere perception of a funding dip has rankled education advocates. The Nevada State Education Association, which has routinely questioned moving to the new funding formula without a significant bump in revenue, has openly critiqued the proposed K-12 budget on social media and in legislative hearings.

NSEA has raised concerns about the so-called weights — extra money intended to support certain student groups — established in SB458. The weights — 0.24 for English learners, 0.03 for at-risk students and 0.12 for gifted and talented students — will serve as a multiplier to the statewide base per-pupil funding. The result appears to be approximately an extra $1,648 for English learners, $209 for at-risk students and $837 for gifted and talented students.

NSEA leaders called the at-risk weight “anemic” and incapable of covering the expense of services meant to support low-income students.

Educate Nevada Now, an equity-focused organization, issued a statement Thursday lamenting the lack of financial clarity surrounding SB458 when it was unanimously passed in a joint subcommittee last week.

“We are glad that lawmakers could restore those funds, especially after such trying economic challenges, but we need to be clear about what these dollars mean and manage people’s expectations,” Amanda Morgan, ENN’s executive director, wrote in a statement. “This does help put us near where we were in 2019, but it does not mean students will see smaller class sizes or that schools will see more resources or supports.”

The ending-fund balance rationale posed by Denis didn’t dissipate skepticism among NSEA and Educate Nevada Now officials who want lawmakers to produce documents showing the money transactions.

“This whole thing doesn’t engender a lot of confidence in the new formula,” said Chris Daly, an NSEA lobbyist.

Lawmakers, however, argue that schools will see more resources courtesy of the massive wave of federal coronavirus relief funds. The three rounds of federal funding stand to bring Nevada school districts roughly $1.5 billion. The Clark County School District alone expects to receive more than $777 million through the American Rescue Plan Act, which is the third round of federal funding.

School districts are developing plans for how to use the federal funds, especially in terms of mitigating academic challenges created by the pandemic. The caveat, of course, is that the federal windfall is not recurring. The funds must be used within specific timeframes.

“I would count on the educational experience being better for our children,” Ebert said, referring to the effect of the federal funding.

But Michelle Booth, communications director for Educate Nevada Now, cautioned against an overreliance on the pandemic-related federal funding.

“Federal funds are great,” she said. “They’re helpful, but everybody knows that unless we do anything different, unless we have revenue, we’re going to have a fiscal cliff after that.”

Another unknown with five days remaining in the legislative session is whether lawmakers will pass any measures boosting mining taxes. If that were to occur, Denis said that money could be directed into the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. 

Frierson on Wednesday expressed optimism there would be movement on the mining front but didn’t divulge details. Republicans, who will be key to getting a deal through, said they haven't seen concrete language on what a compromise tax deal with mining would look like and can't commit until they do, but have heard it’s in the ballpark of $70 to $80 million a year.

"I expect for there to be a policy passed dealing with revenue from mining, whether it's a resolution on the ballot or a deal,” Frierson told The Nevada Independent. “I expect to do something."

This story was updated at 8:33 p.m. on May 27, 2021, to include additional comments from Nevada State Education Association and Educate Nevada Now officials.

Lawmakers approve adding more than half a billion dollars to public education to implement new K-12 funding formula

State lawmakers are adding more than a half a billion dollars in education funding to help stand up the new K-12 funding formula over the next two years, marking one of the largest legislative investments in school funding without a tax increase in state history.

Legislators in a joint budget committee on Wednesday unanimously approved allocating $275 million in the 2022 fiscal year and $227 million in 2023 fiscal year to boost base funding in the state’s new “Pupil-Centered Funding Plan,” the long anticipated upgrade of the state’s decades-old public school funding formula set to go into effect this summer.

Lawmakers have spent recent weeks working to close K-12 budgets and complete the complex implementation and transition to the new funding formula, including meeting late Tuesday to approve appropriating $67.2 million to hold rural school districts harmless moving into the new funding formula.

But the meeting Wednesday morning was the first time that education advocates and the public got an answer to the question of how much lawmakers would be willing to spend to stand up the new formula — more than $502 million.

“I'm going to say it: I've been waiting a damn long time to put this amount of money into education,” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said.

Sen. Chris Brooks, who co-chairs the committee, said a lot of work happened overnight to get the additional funding and numbers squared away. The financial flexibility to move forward on enhanced funding was undoubtedly also boosted by the better-than-expected taxation revenue projections approved earlier this month by the state’s Economic Forum — giving lawmakers a $586 million upward revision in projected tax revenue, much of which is now being allocated to the funding formula.

Though lawmakers are ending the 120-day legislative session with the financial wind at their backs — between the Economic Forum’s projections and the coming $2.9 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan — several noted that the actions taken on Wednesday will apply more pressure on future Legislatures to continue funding education at higher levels.

“It will certainly put some upward pressure, rather than downward pressure, on future sessions and future executives to continue funding education at an increased method, and I think that's the point,” Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) said. 

The average base per-pupil funding will be $9,096 in the 2022 fiscal year and $9,185 in the 2023 fiscal year. Those figures do not reflect other money that flows to students, including special education money that is outside the funding model.

Eight of the state’s 17 school districts, plus the Davidson Academy and all charter schools, will be transitioned to the new funding formula over the biennium, with nine mostly rural school districts remaining in a “hold harmless” budget status. Legislative fiscal staff said that the new K-12 funding scheme covers about 93.6 percent of public and charter students.

“I don't think we can express our appreciation more than we already have, but we are going to continue to try,” said Hawah Ahmad, a lobbyist for the Clark County Education Association. “And at the end of the day, we just thank you for supporting our educators and supporting our students to give them every opportunity to succeed.

Chris Daly with the Nevada State Education Association lauded the move but acknowledged the public pressure to continually move the needle on K-12 funding in the coming years. The Commission on School Funding — the advisory body ushering the new funding plan into existence — has said Nevada needs more than $2 billion over a decade to achieve the national average of per-pupil spending. The commission has recommended changes to property and sales taxes as a means to generating that significant amount of new revenue toward education.

“I just want to point out there is a collaborative, sometimes contentious but ultimately necessary process between inside the halls and corridors of power and outside the halls and corridors of power,” he said. “People raised their voice to ask those who are elected to address their concerns and remedy their issues.”

Without naming names, several legislators offered thinly veiled responses to pressure by education advocates to increase education spending through raising taxes — Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) said that lawmakers last session faced 119 days of criticism before moving to substantially boost per-pupil funding, and that the “historic support for public education… doesn't happen on the sidewalks and also doesn't happen on social media.”

Carlton, who is serving her final term in the Legislature, said she anticipated additional criticism of the Legislature to come over the final two weeks of session but stressed that putting a substantial amount of money into base education funding would have a profound effect on public school teachers and students.

“No matter what we do, it's not going to be good enough for somebody,” she said. “They're going to criticize us for not solving this problem or that problem or another problem. But the fact of the matter is that we are adding a half a billion dollars to education, and we're putting most of it into the base, which will help every single student and every single teacher succeed.”

What it means

It wasn’t immediately clear how much the new infusion of funds would raise the amount of money Nevada spends overall on education per student. Teacher union activists have worn buttons around the Legislature with the number “48,” referring to how the state’s approximately $9,400 in spending per pupil per year ranks 48th in the nation.

“I am confident it is certainly higher in both regards — both the state money that's going into education per pupil as well as the overall investment in education from the state outside of the funding formula,” Frierson said. “I'm confident it’s certainly more than we did in 2019, which was a record increase ... So we're continuing to make progress towards funding, prioritizing public education and we'll continue to do so.”

Because the additional funds are layered on top of a budget that already had deep cuts to class size reduction, the “Read by Grade 3” program and other initiatives, some of the money is simply digging the state out of a hole.

Kieckhefer acknowledged “it's not going to make a huge dent” in how the state ranks nationally, but also said that he thinks the metric is “a really blunt instrument to try and figure out how our education system is functioning.”

“I've always thought that we did ourselves a disservice by saying we're 48 or whatever we are in education, because I've got four kids in the public school system and I know that there's really good teaching going on,” he said. “Is this just massive growth in our education spending? No, it's not. But it is a commitment to seeing through the promise we made last session by the implementation of the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. And it's ensuring that the majority of kids in the state … are being funded based on some reflection of their need. And I think that's important.”

Beyond the education add-backs on Wednesday, the state has to account for a hit of about $200 million because the Supreme Court ruled a payroll tax increase was unconstitutional, and has already increased Medicaid general fund spending about $110 million above the governor’s recommendation. That consumes much of the $910 million in unexpected money the state has to work with because revenue forecasts were rosier than originally planned.

That could mean the budget does not have a 5 percent cushion in the “ending fund balance,” which is a target for lawmakers. Kieckhefer said he expects the Legislature will want to plug COVID-19 relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan to further shore up the budget.

Carlton said that the state isn’t yet done with the budget.

“We're just working with general fund right now because we don't have that money yet,” Carlton said of the federal aid. “Now once we get a very solid feel for what that is, then we can go ahead and add it in and then we can make some other decisions."

She said she’s waiting for fiscal analyst Russell Guindon to get comfortable with guidance from federal officials on precisely how the money can be used. 

“We're comfortable with getting the money but is the guidance clear enough that we don't put ourselves in harm's way and we end up with a clawback?” Carlton said.

But it appears the amount of base per-pupil funding finalized on Wednesday will stand.

“I think we are where we need to be with the base. You have to remember it's going to grow over time. The whole goal was to give it a really good sound footing, so that it can grow over time,” Carlton said. “If you start too high … you'll have expectations that you may not be able to meet. This base, we believe, is just at the right level to allow the model to stand up and run on its own ... and then the legislators that come back in [2023] will be able to evaluate it.”

Updated at 8:03 p.m. on May 19, 2021 to add further comments from legislators.

Lawmakers finalize budgets, but expect restoring many of their cuts

After months of review, legislative money committees closed their final budgets on Friday with many of the austerity measures in the governor’s budget, but are teeing up for a more pleasant round of add-backs to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars from revenue streams expected to over-perform earlier projections.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) said the outcome of a Saturday budget hearing would depend on what numbers staff arrive at after adding up all the actions taken by the Legislature. But even as lawmakers have voted to approve painful cuts, they have hinted that they’re putting sticky notes on certain accounts with the intention of filling them back up. 

“It's a moving target, until the very end,” Brooks said. “But to the extent there's money available, we're going to try to add it back to everything that's been cut.”

He said K-12 education — specifically boosting a base per-pupil figure “as high as we possibly can” — is a priority. That number will be a key starting point as the state moves to a new “Pupil-Centered Funding Plan,” and future adjustments and weights will be calculated as multipliers of that figure.

Earlier in the week, lawmakers swept funding from a long list of targeted, “categorical” accounts into a larger pot of funding to be redistributed through the new funding. But some of those underlying accounts, such as one supporting class size reduction, were cut by tens of millions of dollars before being swept, and lawmakers and advocates gave dire warnings about the consequences of letting that decision stand.

“The proposed $156 million cut the class size reduction over the next biennium would mean a loss of about 1,000 teachers across the state, meaning even more students packed into Nevada classrooms,” said Chris Daly of the Nevada State Education Association teacher’s union. “This is not acceptable.”

Lawmakers already voted this week to undo one of the most loathed cuts during the pandemic — cuts in reimbursement rates for Medicaid providers — but budget committees made less-dramatic moves in recent days to shore up the budget in accordance with constitutional deadlines. Below are some highlights from budget closings on Thursday and Friday.

Medicaid and health care

Full budget committees on Friday approved moving forward with recommendations made earlier this week to roll back Medicaid rate decreases approved by lawmakers during a budget-slashing 2020 special session and a host of other add-backs to state health care spending.

Committee members approved recommendations of rolling back a 6 percent Medicaid rate decrease approved last year, as well as to finally enact a 2.5 percent increase in the acute care hospital rate starting in July. The move restores about $300 million in Medicaid funding, including about $110 million from state dollars.

Lawmakers also approved several other adjustments to the Medicaid budget, including significant caseload adjustments estimated to cost the state roughly $320 million in general fund dollars. The governor’s recommended budget had counted on a caseload of about 770,000 in each year of the biennium, now expected to be about 830,000 in fiscal year 2022 and 820,000 in fiscal year 2023.

Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-Las Vegas), who chaired a budget subcommittee, said Friday that her first few meetings “weren’t cheerful,” but that the state’s recent upward revision in projected tax revenue gave lawmakers the flexibility to reverse many of the proposed cuts.

“We're leaving knowing that we've made some changes now with this budget if we close it as it is, knowing we're making a direct positive impact on so many lives,” she said.

Assembly Ways and Means committee Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said Friday was “one of the good days in the Legislature at this moment in time,” saying that restoring the cuts helped lawmakers avoid tough decisions about which budgets and services to cut.

“The conversations on that were just heart wrenching,” she said. “We're getting back to square one, we still need to build a couple more rungs to the ladder to get out of the hole. We're not out of the hole yet, but at least we're getting close, especially to these vulnerable populations.” 

Corrections

Prison populations have fallen well below projected levels during the pandemic, so lawmakers approved funding for a reduced number of inmates. In the fiscal year that begins in July, lawmakers now expect there will be an average of 11,043 inmates in the system based on projections released in March; that’s about 1,300 people lower than an October 2020 projection of 12,345 inmates.

Another significant change in the last few months has been a delay in an effort to reclassify the  Ely State Prison as a medium security facility, down from its current status as a maximum security facility. The rural prison has long had troubles with staffing, and the status adjustment was aimed at reducing the number of correctional officers needed to supervise the inmates.

The Governor’s Finance Office says it is requesting the Nevada Department of Corrections to conduct an internal study and gather evidence that reclassifying Ely State Prison — and also raising the classification of medium-security High Desert State Prison — is appropriate for the 2023-2025 biennium.

Aging and disability

Lawmakers opted to restore some of the Aging and Disability Services cuts that would hit some of the most vulnerable Nevadans.

The governor’s budget had recommended cutting the rate paid to providers of early intervention services — which are targeted toward young children with disabilities — from $565 to $500 per month. The reduction would have saved $2.9 million over the biennium.

The full committees opted not to approve the recommendation, keeping the rate at $565 per month.

“I think we all share the same discomfort of the long-term impacts of not being able to intervene early that we know increase over time … and also the impact that has on need for state services down the road,” said Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno).

They also opted to reject proposed cuts of six adult rights specialist positions from the long-term care ombudsman program, which was aimed at saving $1.1 million over the biennium. Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) noted that residents of nursing homes were among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the staff of the ombudsman’s office were the eyes and ears on the ground about conditions in long-term care facilities.

“It's not quality assurance, it's not licensing, it's very different,” Ratti said. “It's a place where families can go to share their concerns, and I just have significant concerns about not having that resource in place as we are navigating the rest of this pandemic.”

State parks

Lawmakers approved a fee increase for state parks passes to shift costs from the general fund to visitors, saving the state $2 million over the biennium.

Instead of $75, the cost for a day-use annual pass would be $100. There would also be a new $5 out-of-state fee.

Those changes were already imposed effective in April through temporary regulations, with a process set to begin in May to make the regulations permanent by November.

Parks officials do not anticipate that the changes will deter tourists. They said that camping increased 41.2 percent and boating increased by 10.4 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, and noted that other neighboring states charge out-of-state fees.

Budget differences

Lawmakers on budget committees also used Friday’s meeting to hash out budget closing differences — situations that occur when the Assembly and Senate differ on budget-related decisions.

This session, lawmakers only faced two relatively minor closing issues — one related to a travel and meeting budget for the Commission on School Funding, and one related to funding for the Knowledge account — the grant program for higher education facilities aimed at spurring the commercialization of research.

There were no knock-down, drag-out fights over either of the two items — lawmakers opted to go with the Assembly recommendation on the Commission on School Funding budget (dollars for two-day meetings every other month, as opposed to every month) and the Senate recommendation for the Knowledge Account — full funding of $5 million over the two years of the budget cycle.

Budget committee chairs and legislative leaders said they were generally pleased that despite the often intense budget review process, both houses made it to this point with only a handful of differences.

“We've had hundreds of budget accounts, countless hours of meetings, and between both houses, and all these members, and two different political parties, and it boils down to these two very simple closing differences,” Brooks said. “This is to me just an indication of how much we have in common, as opposed to what we differ on.”

Implementation bill, budget votes lay groundwork for launching new education funding formula

The Senate Finance Committee took a step Tuesday night toward fully implementing the new K-12 education funding formula despite repeated concerns raised about the lack of additional revenue.

The committee held its first hearing on SB439 — a largely technical bill involving how money will be distributed through the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan — and heard more than an hour of public testimony before immediately moving into a work session. Ultimately, lawmakers voted to approve an amended version of the bill, moving it forward in the legislative process toward a vote of the full Senate.

State Superintendent Jhone Ebert lauded the legislation as a critical step in the journey toward improving per-pupil funding in Nevada, which consistently ranks near the bottom among states when it comes to school finance. The Pupil-Centered Funding Plan replaces the 54-year-old Nevada Plan, and will dramatically change how money flows to schools. It sweeps more than 80 revenue streams into one giant education funding pot and establishes “weights” that will direct money to students based on their needs.

“This work is difficult, but it couldn't be more important than at this moment where we are currently redesigning the future of education,” Ebert said.

In the waning hours of the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed SB543, which created the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. Since then, the 11-member Commission on School Funding has met nearly two dozen times to discuss how it should be implemented and funded. The advisory body recently issued funding recommendations, specifically targeting property and sales taxes as revenue generators that could help the state achieve per-pupil funding levels at least on par with the national average over the next decade.

But, as it stands now, no new revenue has been funneled toward education — a point that has frustrated the statewide teachers’ union and other education advocates. Multiple people affiliated with the Nevada State Education Association spoke in opposition to SB439 on Tuesday, describing it as legislation crafted behind closed doors that didn’t address the union’s concerns. 

For instance, the union wants Zoom and Victory schools, which receive more money to help students learning English as a second language or living in low-income households, grandfathered into state law rather than gradually phased out during the transition to weighted funding.

“Ever since the introduction of SB543 two years ago, NSEA has expressed policy concerns at every opportunity — the lack of educator voice, no new revenue, watering down Zoom and Victory schools, freezing and squeezing school district budgets .. a giveaway to charter schools and undoing the rules of collective bargaining,” NSEA’s executive director, Brian Lee, said during the hearing. “SB439 fails to adjust a single issue raised by educators showing its backers are unserious about developing and delivering a funding plan to benefit all Nevada students.”

Meanwhile, charter school leaders were pleased to hear charter schools would be added to the hold harmless clause of the new funding formula, but it didn’t ease all their concerns. 

Rebecca Feiden, executive director of the State Public Charter School Authority, testified in neutral and pointed out that charter schools would not be receiving district equity adjustments or auxiliary funding for transportation services under the new funding plan. She said that means charter schools would only bank approximately 93 percent of the funding the neighboring Clark County School District receives. In Washoe County, charter schools would receive 92 percent and, in Elko County, 76 percent.

The Washoe Education Association, Mi Familia Vota, the Charter School Association of Nevada and Battle Born Progress were among the organizations that opposed SB439.

Even those who voiced support, such as the Clark County Education Association, pushed for more education funding.

“No more excuses and no more delays. No more telling the nation that we enjoy a last place ranking on education,” said Karl Byrd, a social studies teacher at Knudson Middle School in Las Vegas. “It's time to fully fund our schools, and SB439 is a step in the right direction.”

Budget groundwork for transition

The SB439 hearing came hours after lawmakers took a preliminary vote to make a full transition to a new funding formula for schools for the next two years, instead of the phased approach the governor recommended — a move that opens up many more questions lawmakers will have to answer in the final three weeks of the session.

Gov. Steve Sisolak had recommended a phased implementation of the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan that would involve putting all state-level school funding ($2.7 billion) into the new formula in the coming biennium and not pulling locally generated funds into the formula until later.

But that arrangement drew legislative scrutiny because schools draw about 70 percent of their funding from local revenue sources. That means students in counties that have less ability to generate local funding would likely receive less funding than their counterparts in wealthier counties.

Members of a joint Senate-Assembly budget subcommittee also took another key step toward launching into the new paradigm when they voted to set the “average base per-pupil amount” the new formula will provide to $6,954 per student in the fiscal year 2022 and $7,090 in fiscal year 2023. Further adjustments, such as ones meant to account for variance in wages and the cost of living in state’s 17 counties, would stem from the base the Legislature sets.

Weights — which are extra allotments of funding to address students with extra needs — will be multipliers calculated off the base. They will go toward students learning English as a second language; students defined as “at-risk”; and students who are gifted and talented. 

On Tuesday, subcommittee members also gave their approval to many of the governor’s recommended education budget cuts and changes. While the votes help move the budget closing process along, lawmakers expect to revisit many of their decisions in coming days, likely to restore funding for programs using some of the $910 million more the state has to work with because of new, higher-than-expected revenue projections

Groups including Educate Nevada Now also want lawmakers to use some of the nearly $3 billion it will receive in flexible federal COVID relief funds to help boost funding to schools and facilitate the transition from the antiquated funding formula to a new model.

The subcommittee’s work will then move to the full Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means committees for further review. Those committees are set to take up the matter on Friday.

Cuts to class size reduction

Lawmakers on the subcommittee approved a recommendation in the governor’s budget that cuts class size reduction funding in the coming biennium, then transfers what is left to a general State Education Funding Account that will be redistributed through the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan.

Meeting class size requirements, which limit first and second grade classes to a 17:1 ratio and third grade classes to a 20:1 ratio, would cost an estimated $314 million over the biennium.

But Sisolak has called for cutting funding levels by $156 million in an effort to balance the budget and still maintain base per-pupil funding levels. The remaining money would be incorporated into the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan but would not be restricted to class size reduction and would be available for collective bargaining.

The state remains far from class size targets, with districts frequently requesting “variances” that allow them an exception to the rule. A state-commissioned study from Data Insight Partners found that 87 percent of students are in class sizes larger than the non-binding recommendations from the state, which called for a 15:1 student-teacher ratio for grades 1 through 3 and 25:1 in all other grades. Meeting that would require an additional 3,000 teachers in the state.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) said the cut would make it impossible for districts to meet class size goals, and he added that the cut needs to be reevaluated in the future.

“It's nonsensical to think that they would be able to meet those targets when we provide them less funding to do so,” Kieckhefer said. “And not having enough money is a perfectly adequate reason for not complying. So I would expect every school and every district to submit that form to the district to justify their inability to meet those targets.”

Zoom, Victory and Nevada Ready 21 programs moved

Lawmakers took the governor’s recommendation to fold $165.2 million designated to support English learners, at-risk students and those who need personal computers into the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. Instead of having Zoom Schools, Victory Schools and English learner grants, that money would be converted into a weight (an additional sum of money) that flows to students who have those special needs.

The goal is to serve a wider group of students with the kinds of services available through the programs — such as pre-K programs, professional development and wrap-around services. Victory School grants support 35 of the lowest-performing schools in the state and 21,730 students within them, but there are more than 247,000 students in the state who are considered “at-risk.”

Zoom Schools and the English Learner Grant program serve nearly 44,000 students in the state, although nearly 52,000 students are considered eligible for English learner weighted funding.

The Nevada Ready 21 program offered grants to help connect students to computing devices — a goal accelerated when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and districts used funds including federal aid to obtain devices for distance learning. State education officials said funds would still be needed to maintain and replace those devices as they reach the end of their life cycle.

The Nevada Ready 21 funding would be reshuffled into “base” per-pupil funding within the new formula.

Weights for underperforming students restored

Members of the budget subcommittees gave preliminary approval to transferring about $140 million from the New Nevada Education Funding Plan into the account funding the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. The program, authorized through SB178 of the 2017 session, allotted $1,200 for every low-income or English learner student who was scoring in the lowest quartile on proficiency tests and was not enrolled at a school receiving Zoom or Victory program funding. The program served more than 58,000 children.

Funding was eliminated in a round of budget cuts during the 2020 special session, but lawmakers on the subcommittee supported the governor’s recommendation to restore it and then transfer it this session to the larger pot of general education money. State officials acknowledged they missed a Feb. 1 deadline for getting an independent analysis of the programs’ effectiveness to the Legislature, saying they faced challenges choosing a vendor and following through with the assessment because of the pandemic.

Instead of funding $1,200 weights, the money would be redistributed, with 50 percent contributing to weights for English learners and 50 percent supporting weights for at-risk students.

Read by Grade 3 funding reduced

Lawmakers approved the governor’s recommended cut of $50 million over the biennium to a handful of education programs, primarily Read by Grade 3 and college (cut by $33 million) and career readiness initiatives (cut by $10 million).

Several lawmakers who voted for the cuts said they wanted to prioritize the accounts when the state decides later how to redistribute money gained because the Economic Forum has projected more tax revenue than previously expected in the coming biennium.

“This is a motion that I would prefer to vote against. But I will vote for because of the process that we're working through here,” Kieckhefer said. “I think these cuts need to be restored. And I sure have them on the tops of our list along with some others as we move forward in the session.”

Lawmakers voted to transfer the remaining funding for the initiatives to the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. Read by Grade 3 laws developed over the past six years would remain, including the requirements that schools submit a literacy plan for approval by the Department of Education and that schools designate a licensed teacher as the campus literacy specialist.

Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) opposed the transfer, saying that she likes the current arrangement through which the literacy money is budgeted separately and subject to separate accountability. She also floated the idea that in the future, there could be a new weight for students who cannot read at grade level.

GATE programs funded at higher level

Experts have differed on how much should be spent on the 2-4 percent of students identified as gifted, but the subcommittees ended up approving a more generous amount for GATE. The state’s Commission on School Funding recommended a target weight of 0.14, while the consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates recommended the more modest weight of 0.05.

Assembly Ways and Means Chairwoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said she was comfortable funding the services at a lower level.

“Even around that conversation of 0.05, we weren't talking about taking your money out of education and putting it someplace else,” she said. “All the money in the education universe that we have been talking about, for over 100 days now, is staying in the education universe. It's just how the pie is sliced.”

But she said members of the Senate wanted a weight of 0.12, which is what was ultimately approved, for $10.4 million over the biennium. Several members expressed thanks for that action.

“We don't have that many students. And I think that funding is critically important,” said Seevers Gansert.

Teacher incentives melded into general education account

Lawmakers on the subcommittees voted to restore a cut to a program that offered incentives to teachers in low-income and underperforming schools, but rolled the $5 million into the larger fund for paying for education.

The program allows bonuses that would increase a teacher’s base salary by up to $5,000 a year. But fiscal staff said the typical bonus was closer to $1,000 per teacher, and the Nevada Department of Education could not provide data about how effective the incentives were to recruit and retain teachers.

General fund spending reduced, marijuana revenue up

In the governor’s recommended budget, the amount of money the general fund is contributing to the “Nevada Plan” to support education is $1.5 billion in the coming biennium, down 2.2 percent from the levels in the current biennium. But the overall amount the state is contributing to the plan is up because of increases in non-general fund revenue sources in the state that support schools, such as an annual tax on slot machines and a 10 percent excise tax on retail sales of marijuana.

When local revenues are added into the mix, there will be about $9 billion directed toward education through the Nevada Plan in the coming biennium, which equates to average per-pupil spending of $9,149 in the fiscal year that starts in July and $9,292 in the following fiscal year. State support accounts for about 30 percent of that.

Part of that state support is ever-increasing revenue collections from a tax on marijuana. Although the state has the option to use marijuana money to “supplant” the general funds it contributes to education, lawmakers voted to add the $62 million in incremental marijuana money expected in the coming two years on top of what they have budgeted to give schools from the general fund.

In total, the state expects the marijuana tax will generate about $185 million for education over the next two years.

Follow the money: Breaking down $2.8 million in combined legislative campaign spending from major industries

The Nevada Legislature building

Even as lawmakers perennially tout the strength of their small-dollar fundraising, the driving force of any campaign in any cycle — with few exceptions — is big-money donors. 

Often contributing upwards of six-figures across dozens of campaigns, money from these donors often comprises the vast majority of campaign funds, especially in the most competitive legislative campaigns.

However, while all these contributions are reported to Nevada’s secretary of state every quarter, parsing trends from such reports or determining how corporate or PAC donors are spending in the aggregate is no simple task, as each contribution is siloed either under individual candidates or individual donors. 

To get at those trends, The Nevada Independent analyzed more than 7,700 individual contributions of more than $200 made to every sitting lawmaker elected in 2020. 

That $200 cutoff excludes a small portion of small-dollar fundraising, as well as two lawmakers who were appointed to their seats in 2021 (Sen. Fabian Donate, D-Las Vegas and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May, D-Las Vegas) and any fundraising by losing candidates. 

What is left is an expansive picture of the spending habits of Nevada’s biggest industries, from unions and casinos to health care giants and dark-money PACs. Over the course of our Follow the Money series, we’ve taken a deep dive into the spending of the state’s 10 largest industries, a group of donors that collectively spent $7.8 million of the $10.6 million in big money legislative contributions last cycle. 

Links to all previous installments of this series, including top-line breakdowns of all spending and all fundraising, have been included at the end of this article.

But beyond the largest 10 are the 14 “smallest” industries, according to our categorizations, which still spent upwards of $2.8 million combined. Below is a breakdown of that campaign spending, ordered by industry, from greatest to least. 

Spending nearly as much money last cycle as the much-debated Nevada mining industry were a number of alcohol and tobacco companies, which combined to contribute nearly $319,000. 

Spendiest among industry donors was tobacco company Altria (likely better known by its former name, Philip Morris Companies, Inc.), which gave 30 lawmakers a combined $95,050. Almost all of that money went to Republicans, who received $75,050 to the Democrats’ $20,000. 

Among all legislators, none saw more money from Altria than Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden), who received $9,000. He was followed by Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) with $8,750 and Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas) with $7,000. The remaining 27 lawmakers, including eight Democrats and 19 Republicans, received $5,000 or less.

Other major industry donors include beer-giant Anheuser Busch ($50,500), the Nevada Beer Wholesalers Association ($49,000), alcohol distributor Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits ($33,500) and electronic cigarette maker Juul Labs ($26,500). 

Contributing more than $306,000 combined, the state’s transportation industry included a varied mix of donors from car manufacturers, ride-sharing companies, railroads, taxis and associated organizations and individuals. 

Biggest of all was the Nevada automotive dealers PAC, NADEAC, which contributed $52,500 in total, split nearly evenly between Republicans ($27,500) and Democrats ($25,000). Most of NADEAC’s contributions were comparatively small, however, and only two legislators saw more than $2,500 — Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) and Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas), each of whom received $5,000. 

Following NADEAC was electric car maker Tesla — operator of the massive gigafactory battery plant in Northern Nevada — which gave 20 legislators $45,000. Most of that, $34,500, went to legislative Democrats, with the two Democratic leaders — Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) — receiving the most of anyone with $5,000 each. 

Other major transportation donors include the Nevada Trucking Association and its president, Paul Enos (a combined $42,500), Union Pacific Railroad ($33,500), rental car company Enterprise ($29,500) and the ride-sharing company Lyft ($21,000).

Twelve telecommunications companies combined to spend more than $300,000 on lawmakers last cycle, with the single largest chunk coming from internet service provider Cox Communications ($120,000). 

The largest internet provider in the state with a near-monopoly on internet service in the Las Vegas metro area, Cox’s spending largely favored legislative Democrats, who received $80,000 to the Republican’s $40,000. That includes one maximum $10,000 contribution to Frierson, as well as $8,000 for Cannizzaro.  

Communications giant AT&T followed with $82,250, again favoring Democrats ($58,750) to Republicans ($23,500). And here, too, the top recipients were Frierson and Cannizzaro, who received $8,000 each. 

Other major donors included internet service providers Charter Communications ($47,500) and CenturyLink ($14,000), as well as satellite TV provider Dish Network ($12,000). 

Though the pharmaceutical industry at large contributed nearly $273,000, more than half came from just one donor: the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which gave 45 lawmakers $140,500. 

Among the most powerful industry groups in the entire country, PhRMA’s contributions favored Republicans, who received $86,000 to the Democrats’ $54,500. Among individual lawmakers, PhRMA’s four top recipients were all Assembly Republicans: Roberts ($8,000), Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) ($8,000), Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno) ($8,000) and Assemblywoman Melissa Hardy (R-Henderson) ($7,000). 

Other major donors include the drugmaker Pfizer ($46,250), National Association of Chain Drug Stores ($17,500), and biotechnology company Amgen ($11,000). Nineteen other donors, including major drugmakers such as Merck, Sanofi, Eli Lilly and Johnson & Johnson, gave $10,000 or less. 

Though 55 donors in the finance and banking industry combined to contribute more than $214,000, almost two-thirds of that money came from one source: the Nevada Credit Union League (NCUL), the credit union trade association, which gave $86,250 across 46 legislators. 

The NCUL’s spending widely favored Democrats, who received $62,000 to the Republicans’ $24,250. Much of that difference was made up by the sheer number of Democrats receiving contributions (30 Democrats to 16 Republicans), but also by three large contributions to Democratic Leaders. 

Frierson and Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) both received the $10,000 maximum, while Cannizzaro received $9,000. No other lawmakers received more than $5,000 from the group.   

Other major donors include One Nevada Credit Union ($25,500) and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors ($14,500). The remaining 52 donors gave just $9,500 or less. 

Unlike some other major industries, technology-related companies and donors gave to lawmakers in comparatively mid-sized or small amounts, with the largest among them — the data company Switch — giving a total of $62,000 to 21 legislators. 

That money was evenly split between 10 Democrats and 11 Republicans, who combined to receive $31,0000 each. That even-split largely extended down to the individual level, too, with Democrats Cannizzaro, Frierson and Gansert, a Republican, receiving $10,000, while Republicans Hammond and Buck received $5,000 each. The remaining recipients all received $2,500 or less. 

The other significant chunk of technology contributions came from Blockchains, Inc. owner Jeff Berns and his wife, Mary, who combined to give $44,500. Berns was at the center of efforts this session to create so-called “Innovation Zones,” which would have created a semi-autonomous county in rural Nevada supported by the use of cryptocurrency. 

As criticism of the concept intensified over the course of the legislative session, Gov. Steve Sisolak backed away from Innovation Zones last week in announcing the proposal would take shape as a study, instead. 

The single biggest beneficiary of Bern’s contributions was Assemblyman Jim Wheeler (R-Minden), who received $10,000 each from Jeff and Mary for $20,000 total. Wheeler’s district, District 39, encompasses parts of Storey County, where Berns’ Blockchains company owns roughly 67,000 acres of land that likely would have become the state’s first Innovation Zone, had the proposal passed muster.  

Berns also gave $5,000 to Cannizzaro, Frierson and Settelmeyer, as well as a handful of smaller contributions to six other lawmakers, including both Democrats and Republicans. 

Other technology companies gave comparatively little, with Reno-based precision measuring equipment firm Hamilton Company following Berns with $15,000, and the tax-software giant Intuit giving $12,500. The remaining 25 donors gave $11,000 or less.  

Insurance companies — close cousins to the finance industry — combined to give lawmakers $165,700, with the Farmers Employee and Agent PAC leading all donors with $63,000. 

Farmers’ spending was split nearly evenly between the two major parties, with Republicans receiving $32,000 to the Democrats’ $31,000. No lawmakers received the maximum amount from the group, though four — Frierson, Roberts, Gansert and Titus — did receive $5,000 contributions. The remaining 20 recipients received $3,000 or less. 

No other single insurance came close to Farmers’ spending. The next largest, USAA, gave just $25,500 (of which most, $17,000, went to Democrats), while small business insurer Employers EIG Services gave $24,000 (including $13,500 for Republicans and $10,500 for Democrats). The remaining 20 insurance donors gave $13,000 or less. 

Though the payday lending industry at large gave comparatively little — $128,000 split across 37 legislators — the single largest industry donor, TitleMax, was among the biggest spenders of any industry as it contributed $93,000 to 35 lawmakers. 

Most of that went to 20 Democrats, who received $56,500 to the Republicans $36,500. TitleMax’s largest individual contributions similarly went to Democrats, with Frierson and Cannizzaro each receiving the $10,000 maximum. Gansert followed with $7,500, while the remaining 32 legislators received $5,000 or less. 

Other payday lending donors gave little in comparison to TitleMax. Dollar Loan Center was next-closest with $23,500 contributed, followed by Purpose Financial with $8,500. The remaining three donors gave marginal amounts, including $1,250 from Advance America, $1,000 from the Security Finance Corporation of Spartanburg and $750 from Community Loans of America.

Breaking down the smaller industries

Dozens of donors categorized as “other” combined to become the 14th largest category, with donors who could not be classified as industry-specific — 357 in all — contributing a combined $247,761. Many of these donors were retirees or private citizens, and most, 262, gave $500 or less. 

Lobbyists and lobbying firms were the next-largest donor group trailing payday lenders, with 56 donors contributing $126,401 combined. There were few major donors in that group — all but 10 gave less than $3,000. The only exception was the Ferraro Group, which gave $32,500 spread across 33 lawmakers. The group’s donations were relatively small, however, and the single-biggest recipient — Cannizzaro — received just $3,500. 

Roughly three dozen education companies, teachers and other individuals combined to contribute $83,272, with the biggest sums coming from charter school company Academica Nevada ($28,500), education management company K12 Management Inc. ($13,500) and for-profit college University of Phoenix ($11,000). Notably absent in this category are major teachers unions, such as the Nevada State Education Association and the Clark County Education Association, as both of those organizations are covered in our analysis of union spending. 

Spending slightly less than they did in 2018 were 15 marijuana companies or related individuals, who combined to spend $86,500 (down from more than $91,000 spent in 2018). Most of that money was concentrated in the three biggest spenders: An LLC linked to The Grove dispensary ($24,750), Nevada Can Committee ($23,000) and a company linked to the Planet 13 dispensary ($15,000). 

The remaining two categories were the smallest of all: Nevada tribes, but only the Reno Sparks Indian Colony reported major campaign contributions with $30,500 across 37 legislators, while just seven agricultural donors combined for $10,950 (of which nearly half, $5,000, came from the PAC Nevadans for Families & Agriculture). 

Tim Lenard, Riley Snyder and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

As part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent has published deep dives into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see any of the previous installments, follow the links below: 

Higher education faculty push to expand collective bargaining rights

unlv campus

Faculty across the state’s higher education system are pushing for a new law this year that would expand the state’s nascent public collective bargaining infrastructure to include professors and other professional staff — a sharp break from years of control of the process by the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE).

Though faculty already maintain bargaining rights under NSHE code, they have long complained that any bargaining structure led by their employers — administrators, the Board of Regents and the chancellor — necessarily creates a power imbalance that has favored institutions in the long term. 

“That means that management writes the rules for collective bargaining and interprets the rules,” Kent Ervin, vice president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance (NFA) and UNR chemistry professor, said. 

Faculty, largely through the NFA, have spearheaded a push to create a “level playing field” through SB373, which would expand collective bargaining laws for public employees to include professional staff employed by the Nevada System of Higher Education.

The measure passed through committee early this month in a 4-1 vote, and now, having been waived through legislative deadlines, awaits a vote on the Senate floor. 

Ervin says the push to move collective bargaining out of the hands of the system and under the umbrella of state law comes after years of stop-and-start bargaining from faculty at the College of Southern Nevada that, he said, could have been avoided through a third-party labor board. 

“It took them three years to come to contract negotiations with their administration,” Ervin said. “And then with NSHE, it became apparent that the very limited rules which you can find in NSHE code are just not adequate. If either side thinks the other side is not bargaining fairly, there's nobody to go to.”

However, where many collective bargaining fights center in part on issues of salaries and pay equity, faculty who spoke to The Nevada Independent said the primary utility of a measure such as SB373 would be injecting fairness into dispute arbitration and adjudication that is, as of now, handled exclusively by the employer. 

“It really provides better due process for the faculty member involved, but also ultimately reduces the possibility of litigation and things escalating to where litigation is a possibility,” Ervin said. “I have seen the Board of Regents when they talk about settlement packages, how much money they're spending every year on settlements. Well, if you nip some of those issues in the bud and work out amicable solutions between the employee and their supervisors, you often could avoid those things.” 

Doug Unger, a UNLV English professor and the president of UNLV’s NFA chapter, said that these disputes have become even more common in the wake of the pandemic, and that core of the issue comes in redistributing some of the lingering power that has been entrenched in administrative hands since the very inception of the first universities in medieval Europe. 

“You have this medieval authority established in the universities, it’s why we have the names we have — chancellors, deans, provosts, regents — and the idea to elect a regent, someone who has absolute power over a system,” Unger said. “This idea of a medieval authority of an administrator is entrenched in the university system; they don’t want to give it up.”

Expanding the collective bargaining process, Unger said, would serve to chip away at that “medieval” authority by democratizing the process itself.  

And though salaries may not be the central issue behind the push for SB373, they still remain top-of-mind for faculty members who have gone more than a decade without a merit-based pay raise outside of promotions. 

“The only way to get annual raises is to threaten to leave,” Jeffrey Waddoups, a labor economist and chair of the UNLV economics department, said. “And if you threaten to leave, and it's a credible threat, and they want to keep you around, then they'll give you a raise. And the reason for that is because there's no system set up to give annual raises, and we have no power to establish such a system.”

Efforts to allow merit-based raises through a 1 percent pool of institutional funds have continued outside of efforts to pass SB373. But, Waddoups said, without bargaining power and without a union, efforts to return to pre-Great Recession pay raises would be hampered “because there’s no real way to do it.”  

Nevada’s system — where final rules-making authority lies with the higher education employer — is relatively rare in the U.S., according to Risa Lieberwitz, general counsel for the American Association of University Professors.

“Where a state law provides for collective bargaining for public employees that would normally state who's covered, you know, what employees and so if faculty are covered by the state, faculty in the State University are covered, they would either be under that general law, or there could be a separate law, but it would be most unusual to see that the collective bargaining system is controlled by the employer.”

Lieberwitz, who is also a professor of labor and employment law at Cornell and testified in favor of SB373, said that consistency in the way public sector bargaining agreements are carried out generally would broadly “enhance the stability of relationships” between administrators and faculty.  

In testimony so far, NSHE has remained formally neutral on the bill. In testifying on the measure on April 7, system General Counsel Joe Reynolds reiterated to lawmakers that NSHE code already provides for collective bargaining, and that they were “still reviewing this complex bill” and “do have questions about its scope, reach into board governance over personnel matters and costs.” 

Though Chancellor Melody Rose was unavailable for an interview before publication, she said in a statement late Tuesday that the board's position had not changed from neutral, and that it maintained the same concerns raised by Reynolds two weeks ago.

Still, the issue has so-far been inseparable, among some legislators, from broader issues of higher education governance and funding. 

“I think NSHE needs some major, major financial overhauls,” Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) said during a committee vote on the measure. “I think those guys have been spending money like drunken sailors with no oversight for decades … I realize this has to do with individuals, but the whole collective bargaining process, especially for those guys — financially, it’s out of control. I think we need to do some serious reining in of how they behave, so I’ll be a no.” 

Hansen’s remarks come as multiple legislators have expressed skepticism of the governance of NSHE by the Board of Regents, as well as of a renewed push to approve a constitutional amendment, SJR7, that would remove the board from the Constitution entirely. 

Though a similar measure, Question 1, was narrowly rejected by voters last year, legislators have so far broadly approved of SJR7. The measure was passed unanimously out of committee before being passed by the full state Senate, 20-0, last week

Hansen was opposed to SB373 on the grounds that collective bargaining does not “represent the taxpayer,” saying in an initial hearing on April 7 that the measure — like all public bargaining measures — creates a system in which one government agency collectively bargains with another government agency. His concerns were echoed by the Vegas Chamber, which testified against the bill on the grounds that it would create an undue tax burden, a complaint first leveled against public employee bargaining laws by the group during the 2019 session. 

Ultimately, Hansen was alone in opposing SB373 in the Senate Government Affairs Committee, whose three Democratic members all voted in favor. Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) — the committee’s only other Republican — also voted for the bill, though only with a reservation of his right to change his vote when it comes to the Senate floor. 

Outside committee Democrats, the bill also found support among a handful of other unions, including the public employee’s union AFSCME, the state teacher’s union NSEA and the service employee’s union SEIU.

Having been waived through legislative deadlines, it is not clear when SB373 will receive its first floor vote in the Senate. Delaying the bill in part: outstanding fiscal notes totaling $1.7 million through the next biennium for the attorney general’s office and the Department of Administration. 

Ervin said Tuesday that those notes will likely be removed, however, through a forthcoming amendment that acknowledges NSHE already bears the cost for bargaining infrastructure, and therefore no new costs would be created for the state.

Lawmakers advance bill that could make Nevada first presidential nominating state, but many challenges remain

Nevada lawmakers have taken the first steps in processing legislation that would move the state to the top of the presidential nominating calendar in 2024 — though many hurdles outside the legislative realm remain.

Members of the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee voted along party-lines to approve AB126 on Thursday, the bill from Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson to end Nevada’s presidential caucus and replace it with a primary election that would leapfrog other states to the front of the nominating calendar.

Frierson said during the hearing that Nevada has “consistently punched above our weight” on major national issues from racial justice to climate change, and that the state’s population better reflects the nation as a whole.

“Our voices are diverse and better reflect the rest of the country than the current nominating structure,” he said. “It's time for Nevada to take its rightful place, not just first in the West, but first in the nation.”

The bill lays out the form and function of how a presidential primary election would work in the state, and largely mirrors provisions that govern the state’s existing summer primary election structure. A proposed amendment to the bill sets the date of the presidential election to the first Tuesday in February in every presidential election year.

The measure would also require at least 10 days of early voting, extending through the Friday before the election. It also copies over provisions allowing same-day registration that currently exist in law to apply to presidential primary elections.

The proposed amendment also changes candidate filing schedules, moving the currently separate judicial and non-judicial candidate filing periods to the same, three-week window starting on the last Monday in February.

The measure was lauded by a broad array of progressive and Democrat-aligned groups including the Culinary Union, Battle Born Progress, ACLU of Nevada, Nevada State Education Association, Faith Organizing Alliance and Mi Familia Vota, among others. Many said they were frustrated by the experience of the caucus, and that a move to a primary would make it easier to participate in the nominating process.

“Everyday working Nevadans, which are the communities that we and our partners work with on a daily basis, may not be able to commit to several hours to attend their precinct caucus,” Silver State Voices Executive Director Emily Persaud-Zamora said during the hearing. “It is simply inaccessible to many Nevadans.”

But state lawmakers cannot simply legislate themselves into becoming the first presidential nominating state. 

That decision ultimately rests with the national political party organizations, which set the nominating calendar and can take punitive action against states that violate party rules, including cutting the allocated number of delegates to party conventions (a similar attempted maneuver happened in Florida in 2011).

And the other three early nominating states will likely not take the leapfrogging lying down. New Hampshire has even explicitly written into state law that its presidential primary must be held seven days or more before another state’s “similar election.”

Asked by Assemblywoman Jill Dickman (R-Sparks) what Nevada could do if other early states reacted to the bill by moving ahead of the primary date set in AB126, Frierson largely demurred, saying the legislation was just the first step in state leaders “making the case” that it should go first.

“We are certainly not able to have a moving scale the way some states do, and so our job is to make our case, not just to the RNC and the DNC, but also to those other states that we are a better reflection,” he said.

The bill may get a warmer reception from the national Democratic Party, whose leaders have in recent weeks discussed moving South Carolina and Nevada to the front of the primary election schedule. It’s part of intense behind-the-scenes jockeying to shake up the nominating calendar after Iowa’s disastrous 2020 caucus and a desire to have more diverse states than Iowa or New Hampshire featured early in the calendar.

However, it could face a much colder reception from the Republican National Committee. The Des Moines Register reported in January that state Republican party chairs from the first four early states had met and agreed to work together to avoid any major changes to the current nominating process. Nevada Republican Party Chair Michael McDonald submitted a letter opposing the measure, saying that “trying to play chicken with primary dates is not a battle we will win.”

Jim DeGraffenreid, one of Nevada’s Republican National Committee members, said the bill would likely run afoul of current national political party rules on when nominating contests could be held, and said that the party didn’t think it was a “good use of state resources” to switch to a primary.

“Leaving us the choice of how to nominate our own candidates is far more fair than having the state dictate that we abandon a fair and inclusive process,” he said.

Republican members of the committee also balked at the potential cost of the measure — a fiscal note submitted by the secretary of state’s office estimated that the cost of holding a primary election to be around $5.2 million. Dickman said she was also concerned that the measure likely violated national political party rules and could lead to Nevada losing its early nominating spot, but Frierson said that wasn’t the case.

“I have not received any indication that this is jeopardizing our position in the West, let alone in the country,” he said.

Eliminating barriers for paraprofessionals heralded as another way to address teacher shortage

Proposed legislation that advocates say would chip away at the state’s chronic educator shortage and diversify the teaching ranks drew widespread support Monday during its first hearing.

SB352 aims to eliminate barriers that prevent paraprofessionals — support staff who often work with students as classroom aides or tutors — from becoming licensed educators. The bill, which is sponsored by the Senate Education Committee, would allow paraprofessionals to continue working while student teaching.

It would also require the Department of Education to accept student teaching completed in another country if “the program or experience substantially fulfills the standards of a program of student teaching” in Nevada.

Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, framed the legislation as a way to ensure people interested in entering the teaching profession can do so without numerous obstacles in their way. 

“What keeps me awake sometimes is knowing that as more of the state’s Baby Boomers retire, our need for new teachers will only grow, making our teacher corps even younger and less experienced,” he said.

Michelee Cruz-Crawford, principal of C.C. Ronnow Elementary School in Las Vegas, was a driving force in bringing this bill to life. The administrator said she noticed huge desire among paraprofessionals at her school to become full-fledged teachers, but they often hit a sticking point when they encountered the student teaching portion of their undergraduate coursework: Many couldn’t afford to quit their paraprofessional jobs in order to student teach for the required 16 weeks.

Some paraprofessionals, who generally have nine- or 10-month contracts, make only $13,000 to $20,000 a year, Cruz-Crawford said.

“They obviously love the work they do because they do it for peanuts,” she said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “They have the experience.”

Cruz-Crawford said she began reaching out to local colleges and universities to see if they would be open to allowing paraprofessionals to continue working in their existing schools while student teaching, as long as their experience matched the licensure they were trying to obtain. After receiving positive responses, the idea eventually morphed into SB352.

At C.C. Ronnow Elementary School, Cruz-Crawford said she typically has one or two paraprofessionals a year working on undergraduate coursework to become licensed teachers and nearing the student teaching requirement. She has seen firsthand their financial dilemmas once reaching that point.

Removing that barrier, she said, would help paraprofessionals secure their teaching licenses while also easing the state’s teacher shortage and helping diversify staff. 

Despite a diverse student body in the Clark County School District, the overwhelming majority of licensed educators (65 percent) are white; by comparison, only 36 percent of support staff members are white. Twenty-three percent are Black, and 29 percent are Hispanic.

Cruz-Crawford described paraprofessionals as “amazing hard workers” whom she would hire in a heartbeat. Many have accumulated years of experience inside the classroom and live in the neighborhoods where they work, making them more likely than out-of-state candidates to stay.

Fatuma Abdullahi, a specialized program teacher assistant at C.C. Ronnow Elementary School, is one of those people. She has worked as an SPTA since January 2015, but her dream is to become a fully licensed special education teacher.

“I've been taking only two classes at a time, because I have to work to pay for my rent, my car and utilities bills,” she said while testifying in support of SB352. “Now I'm at the point where I have to leave work so that I could finish my last year in school. This is the bill that is going to make hundreds of dreams come true — dreams that are being delayed over and over again.”

The Nevada State Education Association, Clark County Education Association, Vegas Chamber, Clark County School District, Washoe County School District and UNLV are among the organizations and institutions that testified in support of the bill. No one testified in opposition or neutral.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.