Nevada Legislature: Budget and education reform were Sen. Ben Kieckhefer’s focus
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer says he went into the 2015 Legislative session focused on the state budget and its emphasis on education reform.
As the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, along with Assembly Ways and Means, the most powerful committees in the Legislature, it was his responsibility to shepherd that budget through.
“I truly believe that money is policy,” Kieckhefer said. “If you want to look at what we value, it’s in our budget.”
And this budget, he said is centered on education.
“The education stuff is strong,” Kieckhefer said. “It’s not business as usual. This is about investment, accountability and choice and reform.”
He said the education programs proposed by the governor and lawmakers have solid accountability measures attached to them to ensure they actually improve the quality of education. Those programs, he said, emphasize performance over seniority in keeping teachers, provide universal school choice, support teacher education and aim to bring top tier charter schools to Nevada.
“There are new levels of accountability for all of us and all these new programs we’re funding target the areas of greatest need,” he said. “For those concerned with the level of spending, there’s a whole new accountability system in place for this.”
The argument, Kieckhefer said, was never about the education programs in the plan, just about the money to pay for them.
“I’m catching a fair amount of flak,” he said. “I understand people are unhappy about it.”
But Kieckhefer, whose district includes south Reno and all of Carson City, said he’s getting tired of “a narrative that doesn’t accurately reflect what we passed.”
“I continue to hear we passed a tax increase that was just rejected by the voters,” he said. “That’s simply wrong. This is a vastly different mechanism.”
The teacher’s tax plan defeated by voters, he said, would have hit business for $800 million a year. The commerce tax in the plan finally passed is projected to raise about $60 million a year — a substantial part of which will come from out of state corporations that currently pay Nevada almost nothing.
“People keep telling me everyone is so outraged but I keep hearing it from the same people over and over again and, somehow the governor’s approval rating still stands close to 80 percent,” he said. “The story that the state is about to revolt is out of touch.”
In addition to education, Kieckhefer said he was dedicated throughout the session to ensuring that state workers were taken care of. The budget ends their unpaid furlough days, pays for annual step increases and gives cost of living raises.
“I made it clear that was something that was going to be in the budget that came out of my committee,” he said. “State employees have given more than their fair share during the recession and it was important they got brought back up.”
He said he is also proud of SB227, the bill that creates the Silver State Opportunity Grant Program. He said the bill contains $2.5 million a year to help eligible students in the community colleges and the Nevada State College afford to attend full time.
“We always thought college in Nevada was incredibly reasonably priced but that doesn’t necessarily make it affordable for people,” he said.
Kieckhefer said it costs almost 20 percent of the median household income in Nevada to attend community college full time.
The bill provides a need-based grant to help students attend those colleges. It is aimed at degree-seeking full-time students.
“We wanted to help low-income residents to be able to attend community college full-time because students attending part-time don’t graduate,” he said of the bill sponsored by himself and Democrat Ruben Kihuen. “To those students who go full time, it’s going to change their life and change our economy, end the cycle of generational poverty. It’s a state funded need-based scholarship and I’m proud of it.”
Other issues he said were important were P.K. O’Neill’s bill opening the way to turn Nevada State Prison into a museum and historic tourist attraction and the bridge funding for Western Nevada and Great Basin colleges, both of which were also processed by Kieckhefer’s Finance Committee.
Finally, he pointed to changes in the prevailing wage law supported by both himself and O’Neill. Kieckhefer said the final product, “I think, was a stronger prevailing wage bill than I ever thought we would get.”
It increases the trigger before prevailing wage is required on public projects to $250,000 and, he said, incentivizes nonunion shops to participate in the prevailing wage surveys that set those rates for tradesmen. It also gives school projects the right to reduce those rates by 10 percent, which he said will cut the overall cost of school construction by up to 5 percent.
He said Senate Republicans were planning on taking the majority and “we had a game plan.”
Having sat on Senate Finance for the previous two sessions, he said he “felt pretty well suited to come in and be able to chair the committee.”
As for the final product, he said he’s happy with what they did.
“It’s a very good budget,” Kieckhefer said. “We did our job.”