By Sean Golonka, The Nevada Independent, March 30th, 2023
On the campaign trail and during his State of the State address, Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo laid out a wide-reaching policy agenda, calling for improvements to K-12 education, more aggressive economic development policies and a reversal of Democrat-backed election and criminal justice policies.
With those five bills, the last of which were introduced on Monday’s bill introduction deadline day and collectively span nearly 400 pages, the governor is seeking to enact sweeping changes to state government organization, elections, criminal justice policies and the K-12 education system.
During a Wednesday press briefing with reporters, Lombardo’s Chief of Staff Ben Kieckhefer described the bills as “fully consistent with what [Lombardo] outlined during the campaign,” and representing “a policy agenda that is designed to meet the needs of the state.”
But in a Democrat-controlled Legislature, many of the proposed changes stand little chance of surviving to the governor’s desk in their original form. Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) has described Lombardo’s election proposals as a “nonstarter,” and Democrats are unlikely to accept proposed changes drawing power away from the Legislature — where electorally friendly maps give Democrats strong odds to retain majorities in both chambers over the coming years, and where those Democratic lawmakers have power over the state budget.
Still, the threat of a gubernatorial veto looms large as Democrats are one Senate seat short of two-thirds supermajorities needed in both chambers to override any vetoes.
Lombardo’s power to reject any bills that come across his desk gives him greater leverage to seek compromises on policies that may not be easily accepted by an ideologically diverse, 41-member Democratic legislative caucus.
Here’s a closer look at what’s contained in Lombardo’s five policy bills:
AB400: K-12 education omnibus
This bill proposes a broad range of changes to school funding and governance. It seeks to establish new funding accounts for early childhood literacy and a teacher pipeline, create the Office of School Choice and expand eligibility for Opportunity Scholarships.
One portion of the bill would reinstate a requirement to hold back students who cannot read by third grade, though it would also allow for a “good-cause exemption” to allow a student who does not obtain the required reading score on a standardized exam to continue on to fourth grade. The retention requirement (established in 2015) had been removed in 2019 through a Democrat-backed bill that Lombardo criticized on the campaign trail.
As part of the push to expand school choice, the newly minted Office of School Choice would be responsible for administering the Nevada Educational Choice Scholarship Program (also called Opportunity Scholarships, which are scholarships funded primarily through donations that grant as much as $8,726 per student per year for families to pay for a child’s private school, education materials or transportation to school). Under the bill, eligibility for scholarships would expand from students living in households with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty threshold to 500 percent of that level.
“That’s sort of an aggregating focal point for families and parents to look at when deciding about how best to educate the child,” Kieckhefer said of the school choice office.
Funding for the program would also vastly expand with a provision lifting a cap on tax credits available for those who donate to the program, from nearly $6.7 million a year up to 5 percent of all money deposited in the State Education Fund in a year by 2032. That means the state could potentially offer upward of $150 million in scholarships by that time if it collects that many donations.
The bill would also allow for open zoning, allowing students to attend public schools outside of their home area if there is space in those schools, allowing charter schools to apply for transportation funding and allowing a city or county to sponsor a charter school.
The bill also pushes to increase the state’s educator pipeline, including more scholarships for students seeking to become teachers in the state or obtain a master’s degree in education.
SB431: State government administration
This sweeping “Government Modernization and Efficiency Act” would make changes to governor’s office staffing, state financial operations, state personnel decisions and more.
That includes restructuring the governor’s office by adding five cabinet secretaries in the following areas: public safety and military affairs; commerce and administration; energy, environment and public works; health and human services; and education and workforce. Those secretaries would potentially earn more than the governor, under another provision removing the requirement that state employees not be paid more than 95 percent of the governor’s salary of more than $160,000.
The secretaries would also be responsible for reviewing and approving any regulations proposed by state agencies.
Under the bill, the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation — which is responsible for administering unemployment insurance benefits — would be renamed as the Department of Workforce. The renamed agency would be restructured to include additional offices that traditionally operate in the workforce space, such as the Office of Science, Innovation and Technology.
The bill’s proposed changes to financial operations include: raising the cap on the state’s Rainy Day Fund allow for more state savings, requiring the Economic Forum to recommend how much should be stored in the Rainy Day Fund, and requiring that the legislative Interim Finance Committee “not take any action that interferes with or intervenes in the execution of the operations of the State Government.”
The bill also seeks to create the Nevada Way Account, which would distribute funds through a committee of the governor and four legislative leaders. The fund would be a subaccount within the Rainy Day Fund, and would be seeded with $313 million under a proposal in the governor’s recommended budget. The account could be used to fund “efforts relating to economic development or diversification that diversify or stabilize the State’s tax structure” and opportunities that leverage state funds with outside funds, such as federal funds and public-private partnerships.
There could be bipartisan consensus on one portion of the bill seeking to increase Nevada’s share of federal grants, as the state has historically ranked near last in the country in terms of funding from federal dollars. The bill would remove a requirement that state agencies reduce their budgets when they receive federal funds for a similar purpose to what they may already have existing dollars for.
“There’s currently a disincentive to going out and seeking federal funds,” Kieckhefer said. “If an agency is successful in drawing down a federal grant, they shouldn’t have to reduce their general funds in the same amount. It doesn’t make sense.”
Kieckhefer also said changes proposed in the bill would streamline hiring to “get people to work for state government much more quickly.”
SB412: Crime and public safety
As a former sheriff who made public safety a central tenet of his campaign, Lombardo’s so-called “Crime Reduction Act” would amp up penalties for fentanyl possession — making possession of the drug in any amount a category B felony, punishable by one to 20 years imprisonment.
“He believes that these are appropriate penalties for criminal activity that will keep our streets safer,” Kieckhefer said, adding that Lombardo believes in a “zero tolerance policy” when it comes to fentanyl.
It would also revise a provision in 2019’s omnibus criminal justice bill, AB236, which Lombardo criticized on the campaign trail, by lowering the threshold at which theft becomes a felony from $1,200 to $750.
The bill would also redefine “strangulation” in an attempt to better support and defend victims of domestic battery, according to the governor’s office.
The bill also seeks to raise minimum and maximum penalties for drivers convicted of driving under the influence who cause death or substantial bodily harm.
AB330: School discipline
The first bill Lombardo has testified on in person to the Legislature, AB330, would repeal portions of a contentious 2019 restorative justice law that Lombardo described as limiting teachers’ ability to deal with disruptive or violent students. The measure would give teachers the ability to remove a violent student from the classroom, Kieckhefer said.
Though some lawmakers who are teachers have raised concerns over a provision that would allow a principal to override a teacher in that situation, Kieckhefer said there was a need for checks and balances, “if there is a teacher that is exercising that power” too often.
It would also increase penalties for students who commit battery, sell drugs at school or who bring a firearm to school by requiring suspension for a first offense and expulsion for a second.
At a hearing earlier this month, Lombardo stressed the urgency of the proposed school discipline changes and highlighted recent increases in violence within the Clark County School District.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers are pushing a pair of bills that would similarly overhaul restorative justice policies and seek to quell violent behavior that has put teachers at risk.
SB405: Election administration
This bill proposes requiring ID to vote, eliminating universal mail voting and requiring all ballots be received by the close of polls on Election Day.
Under state law, ballots are allowed to be received up to four days following the election if postmarked by Election Day, a policy supported by Democratic Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar.
Under the voter ID proposal, mail ballots would have to include a voter’s driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number, and the bill would require the DMV to issue a form of identification for any registered voters who lack another proof of identity.
The change to mail voting would still also allow any voter to request a mail ballot be sent to them, without needing any particular reason to do so, and the governor’s office has cast the change as a way to save money by avoiding mailing ballots to voters who may not use them.
The bill would also require that any ballots submitted on behalf of a voter by someone other than the voter or an immediate family member would have to be reported and limited to 30 ballots that can be collected and cast by any one person.
Despite Democratic opposition to the proposals, Kieckhefer described them as “commonsense reforms to ensure election integrity and faith, and ensure that when we have an election, we have an efficient and smooth process for determining outcomes that can be quickly and readily understood by voters.”