By Geoffrey Lawrence, Las Vegas Review-Journal, July 8, 2023
When Gov. Joe Lombardo welcomed lawmakers to Carson City at the outset of the 2023 legislative session, he issued a warning: “Mark my words. If the Legislature can’t make meaningful progress in this critical area, these reforms should be placed before the voters in the next election.”
Lombardo was specifically referring to a slate of election reforms he demanded lawmakers address. Over the four-month legislative session, however, legislative leadership declined to hold hearings for most of the governor’s proposals.
This was a pointed break from legislative tradition, as lawmakers typically grant the sitting governor a hearing for his bills even if they don’t expect those bills to progress.
Will Lombardo and his team follow through and organize a petition drive to place policy questions directly before Nevada voters?
If so, he should consider running multiple initiatives simultaneously and qualifying a slate of issues for the ballot. After all, it’s cheaper to collect signatures on multiple issues simultaneously than to do so for each issue independently.
Lombardo’s position in January was that lawmakers should address five specific areas of election law. He asked lawmakers to:
■ Require mail-in ballots be received by Election Day so that Nevada can once again tally results on a timely basis.
■ Have mail-in ballots be supplied at a voter’s request rather than automatically.
■ Require voters to show proof of identification.
■ Implement basic regulations to govern ballot harvesting practices.
■ Create an independent, nonpartisan commission to draw legislative districts to move the state away from partisan gerrymandering.
All of Lombardo’s priorities in this area fall within the scope of election law and could be folded into one initiative petition that conforms with state requirements that initiatives address only a single subject.
However, lawmakers also stonewalled an arguably even more important priority — the expansion of school choice options for struggling Nevada families. Lombardo requested a modest increase in the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which awards tax credits to businesses when they contribute toward scholarships for low-income families. Lawmakers instead delivered cuts to that program.
This showdown came just four years after lawmakers repealed a popular law making education savings accounts (ESAs) available to all families. ESAs would have made direct deposits into private accounts held by Nevada families to help them defray the costs of providing an education for their children.
From these accounts they could pay qualified expenses such as tuition or tutoring costs, transportation, textbooks and extra-curriculars. Eight states have now adopted universal school choice modeled off Nevada’s ESA bill.
Nevada’s ESA program was never allowed to go into effect, however, because the state Supreme Court ruled that the program would need its own legislative appropriation separate from the state education fund. No such technical impediments exist to the Opportunity Scholarship funding mechanism. Funding for this program originates entirely from private donations and so the program requires no legislative appropriation.
School choice is immensely popular, especially among low-income and minority households that otherwise could not afford alternative schooling options. Polls show roughly two-thirds of Americans consistently back school choice, led by Black Americans and Latinos. An initiative on school choice would have a high chance of success.
If Lombardo responds to legislative obstinance by pursuing an initiative petition regarding election law, he should couple it with a proposal to remove all limitations from the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program.
Nevada businesses should be able to donate as much as they like toward student scholarships, and any student should be free to apply for those scholarships. In a state where public schools have consistently failed to translate greater resources into better results, all families deserve this choice.
Lombardo’s team can and should put it on the ballot.
Geoffrey Lawrence is research director at Nevada Policy.