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Thomas Mitchell

Penny wise and pound foolish?

Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak announced recently that he is donating his $163,000-a-year salary to the state’s poorest public schools.

“I asked the people of Nevada for the chance to lead this state for many reasons, chief among them being the opportunity to improve educational outcomes for every child in every classroom in the state,” Sisolak wrote in a letter to the Nevada State Board of Education. “To show my commitment to this goal, the First Lady and I are donating my net state salary back to public education. It is my sincere hope that with these donations, I can begin to fulfill my promise to our educators, families, and children and make a positive impact on our public schools.”

According to news accounts, the money would be split among the state’s 416 poorest schools — less than $400 per school.

This is the same governor who declared in his State of the State speech that he would increase the cost to build new public schools and playgrounds.

“This session I will work to return prevailing wage to public construction projects — as it was before the 2015 session — including, and most importantly, for our children’s schools,” Sisolak declared. “Not only do prevailing wage laws support highly skilled workers in Nevada, they guarantee our children are learning in well-constructed, high quality educational facilities. Let’s do this.”

In pursuit of that largesse for state construction unions, the Assembly at the end of April passed Assembly Bill 136, which would reverse a modest rollback passed in 2015 that reduced the prevailing wage for public school and college construction to 90 percent of the prevailing wage and raised the threshold for covered projects from $100,000 to $250,000.

The prevailing wage law requires that workers on public construction jobs be paid no less than the “prevailing” wage in the area where the work is being done. The wage rate is set by the state Labor Commissioner based on a survey of contractors. The survey is so time consuming that in reality only union shops bother to comply, meaning the prevailing wage is the highest union wage.

Every Assembly Republican present voted against AB136.

Assemblyman Gregory Hafen, a Pahrump Republican, was quoted by the Carson City newspaper as saying that the state’s school districts have estimated AB136 would add $35 million to the cost of building public and charter schools. Alexis Hansen, a Sparks Republican, said it would add 25 percent to the cost of new schools.

Strangely, Nevada System of Higher Education originally said the bill would cost it $18.5 million over the next two years, but later withdrew its fiscal note during testimony before the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, saying it was too difficult to forecast what the market will be in the next two years.

Should the bill pass the Senate and be signed as promised by the governor it will snatch funds from schools that could have been spent on such things as Sisolak’s proposed 3 percent salary hikes for all state teachers, plus 2 percent merit raises in each of the next two years.

The Clark County School District is already complaining that the funding earmarked for the district is inadequate to cover those proposed raises.

The outlook was further clouded this past week when the Economic Forum, which by law sets the amount of money the Legislature may spend during the next biennium based on current taxes, said a paltry $42.8 million more than previous estimates will be available to spend. That’s less than 0.5 percent of the $8.8 billion general fund budget.

Gov. Sisolak spun the news by boasting that the report means Nevada has the “fastest growing economy in the country and continues to outpace the rest of the nation in terms of job growth.”

Assembly Republican Leader Jim Wheeler said the Economic Forum forecast will put the governor’s no new taxes promises to the test.

“In its simplest terms, the Governor and the Democrats are trying to spend more money than is available,” Wheeler said in a statement put out by the Republican leadership. “How will Democrats keep their promise to teachers and unions while still balancing the state budget?”

Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus remarked, “Simply put, there is not enough money to go around.”

It is time for our lawmakers to make some tough decisions and not be penny wise and pound foolish.

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Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@yahoo.com. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/

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