IFC approves funding to continue work on school vouchers program

The Interim Finance Committee on Wednesday approved $128,555 for the Treasurer’s Office to continue preparing for the start of the Educational Savings Account program set for Jan. 1.

Chief Deputy Treasurer Tara Hagen said the money will be used to continue paying temporary employees hired to input applications by more than 3,500 families to receive the state money to support tuition in private schools around the state.

She said the treasurer also will be seeking Board of Examiners approval Nov. 10 to contract with Benefit Wallet to provide the computer program to manage the system and actually move the money from the state to the parents and those private schools. If the program survives legal challenges, parents could get about $5,000 a year for each child in a private schools.

The vouchers program has been challenged as unconstitutional by the ACLU, which argues the Nevada Constitution prohibits giving public money to religious organizations. Most of those private schools are religion based.

Hagen said because the court hasn’t stayed implementation of the program, they have to get ready for implementation by Jan. 1.

She said this, like an earlier appropriation are loans that would eventually be paid back using the 1 percent assessment on all funds transferred to those private schools.

Assemblywoman Jill Dickman, R-Sparks, asked what happens if courts agree the program is unconstitutional and block it.

Hagen said the treasurer’s office would not be able to pay back the money already spent.

“There’s no way to pay back what had been loaned currently within the treasurer’s budget,” she said.

The funding was approved mostly on a party line vote with Democrats who oppose the program against it.

IFC voted to release a total of $18.36 million this year and next to jump-start creation of the new UNLV Medical School and another $2.94 million for the Nevada School of Medicine in Reno to expand and replace some functions the Las Vegas school would take when doctors and programs transfer to the new school.

The new school hopes to accept students beginning in 2017 if accreditation is granted.

IFC also agreed to release the $650,000 collected from Uber and Lyft in licensing fees so the Transportation Authority can hire staff to manage and oversee the two companies.

Business and Industry Director Bruce Breslow said hiring 18 in the south and six people in the north is a lean operation compared to states like California where more than 100 were hired to manage the services billed as an alternative to taxicabs.

But several committee members questioned whether the 1 percent of fares the state is allowed to take to fund oversight would materialize since the program budget is $725,643 this year.

“That assumes they’re going to gross $725 million dollars this year,” said Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno.

Breslow said no one knows what Uber and Lyft will make at this point. He said the plan is to analyze what’s happening in the industry during the coming year. He said what the program will seek from the 2017 Legislature will be based on what the agency will need to oversee the companies.

The committee approved creating a public information officer for the Department of Corrections despite the fact that request was cut from the department’s proposed budget last year. Deputy Director of Corrections Scott Sisco said recent press reports about incidents particularly in the south have been greatly “overblown,” and incorrect. He said the problem is public press information is now handled by the deputy in charge of operations who has many other functions. He said there’s a need for press releases on positive as well as negative issues at the prisons.

As an example, he said something happening around a prominent prisoner like O.J. Simpson can take a lot of that director’s time.

But the panel rejected adding a PIO for the State Forestry Division after Kieckhefer pointed out the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources already has some one to handle that function. He said that person should handle the duty for forestry.

And members objected to the creation of a PIO in the treasurer’s office despite the fact lawmakers refused to fund the position during the 2015 session.

“Now you’re doing it anyway and that doesn’t sit well with us,” said Kieckhefer.

Hagen said the post is being funded through cost allocations taken against the programs that need public information services: the ESA program, Millennium Scholarships, Pre-Paid Tuition and unclaimed property.


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