Gov. Sandoval to define mark at final legislative session

CARSON CITY — Gov. Brian Sandoval is preparing for his last regular legislative session that will culminate the efforts of his administration and define the mark he leaves as Nevada’s 29th chief executive.

The two-term Republican, in typical fashion, is keeping details of his legislative agenda and two-year budget proposal secret until he delivers his last State of the State address Jan. 17.

But a list of bill drafts requested by the governor’s office and initiatives he orchestrated over the past two years provide a glimpse of priorities Sandoval will pursue.

Jobs and workforce

Job creation and training a workforce to meet the demands of a 21st-century economy have been a cornerstone of Sandoval’s administration since he took office in 2011, when the state’s housing market was in shambles and the unemployment rate hovered around 14 percent.

Attracting high-tech companies to diversify Nevada economy and ease dependence on the volatile gambling and hospitality sector remains a top priority. With Nevada’s jobless rate improving to 5.2 percent in November, a challenge is to ensure companies such as Tesla and other advanced manufacturers have a ready cadre of workers.

One bill sponsored by the governor’s office seeks to expand opportunities for high school students to take dual-credit courses that count toward both graduation and post-secondary endeavors, and it requires school districts to work with community colleges and universities to offer them.

Another bill would allow the governor to direct, through executive order, a regulatory body to expedite applications for professional licenses and require those agencies to adopt regulations recognizing comparable licenses issued by other states — a move that could help Nevada attract health care and other highly skilled professionals.

Technology

In 2011, Sandoval was the first governor to take a spin in Google’s autonomous vehicle after lawmakers authorized test vehicles on Nevada roads.

“I think it’s important for Nevada to be first on this,” Sandoval said at the time. “This is going to be part of the future, and Nevada has always been a very progressive state.”

For the 2017 session, the governor’s Office of Economic Development is taking the test-drive a step further with a bill authorizing demonstration projects of autonomous vehicle passenger transportation services.

Energy

Sandoval was perturbed when the state Public Utilities Commission early last year adopted higher rates for net metering customers. That move brought the state’s rooftop solar industry to a halt.

After a shake-up of the commission by the governor, the PUC in September reset the more favorable rates for thousands of existing rooftop solar customers for the next two decades.

Subsequently, a bill draft request submitted in July on net metering was withdrawn by the governor’s office.

Just last month, the PUC allowed some Northern Nevada residential customers to sign up for rooftop solar over the next three years and receive the more generous rates when they sell back excess electricity to the utility.

The governor’s Office of Energy is sponsoring a bill to require the PUC when considering a utility resource plan to “give preference” to energy supplies that provide economic and environmental benefits and reduce customer exposure to the price volatility of fossil fuels and potential costs of carbon.

Prescription drug abuse

Sandoval this summer convened a summit and held meetings at both ends of the state seeking ways to curb opioid abuse in Nevada.

“Without question, this is one of the most important health challenges we currently face,” Sandoval said during the first session in Carson City, calling prescription drug abuse “one of the deadliest epidemics” in the United States.

He assembled doctors, pharmacists, mental health professionals, substance abuse experts, law enforcement, prosecutors, lawmakers and judges, and urged them to work together.

“We seek answers, not excuses,” Sandoval said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths nearly tripled from 1999 to 2014, when 61 percent of the 47,000 drug overdose deaths involved an opioid.

In Nevada, state statistics showed deaths from drug overdoses declined about 28 percent between 2011 and 2015 — from 531 deaths to 382 — though officials could not explain the decrease and said it may be attributed to incomplete reporting at the local level.

Recommendations offered at a subsequent summit in Las Vegas included identifying physicians and others who overprescribe opioids, ensuring that patients who abuse drugs are connected with rehabilitation services and increasing access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

Juvenile justice reform

Last summer, Sandoval appointed a task force led by first lady Kathleen Sandoval and retired state Supreme Court Justice Nancy Saitta to delve into Nevada’s juvenile justice system and recommend ways to break the trajectory from youth delinquent to hardened criminal.

The effort was aided by a federal grant that paid for assistance from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which identified one big problem: Nevada’s inability to share and analyze data between jurisdictions.

In 2015, Nevada spent nearly $95 million on juvenile justice supervision and services. But the state lacks data to evaluate whether those resources are being used efficiently for the best outcome.

Education savings accounts

Sandoval has said he will include funding for education savings accounts in his upcoming budget after the Nevada Supreme Court struck down the school voucher program passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2015.

The ESA law sought to allow parents to claim the state portion of per-pupil funding to send their children to private school or pay for other educational programs. Justices, however, said the law as written was unconstitutional because it took money from a budget account reserved for public schools.

How the governor will pay for it — and whether his proposal will narrow the program by capping the number of students or imposing income eligibility requirements — remains to be seen.

The budget

The 2015 Legislature will be remembered as the session of education reform and tax overhaul, when Sandoval used all his political muscle to push through a $1.1 billion general fund tax package that included the state’s first levy on business revenue to fund his education agenda.

Sandoval is unlikely to propose another tax package, and early this year his administration cautioned state agencies to prepare flat budgets and brace for possible cuts in the upcoming two-year budget cycle that begins July 1.

The Economic Forum, an independent panel of fiscal experts who project state revenue, last month forecast Nevada will collect $7.9 billion in general fund tax revenue for the 2018-2019 fiscal years, a 7 percent increase over the current $7.3 billion budget.

But the extra $541 million projected for state coffers still leaves challenges for the governor and lawmakers.

Budget building is also complicated by uncertainties surrounding President-elect Donald Trump and Republican majorities in Congress that have pledged to undo programs enacted under President Barack Obama — most notably the Affordable Care Act that allowed for the expansion of Medicaid.

Mike Willden, the governor’s chief of staff, told reporters in October that increased enrollment in K-12 schools and higher learning institutions and caseload growth in Medicaid is forecast to cost $446 million over the upcoming two-year cycle.

The revenue forecast is $300 million to $600 million less than the total budget requests state departments submitted to Sandoval in October.

Agencies requested $8.2 billion, a total that included possible 5 percent cuts. Without reductions, agency spending requests totaled $8.5 billion.

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com. Follow @SandraChereb on Twitter.

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