Part of governor’s anti-bullying proposal approved
A piece of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposal to combat bullying in schools was approved Monday by the state Senate.
Senate Bill 504 creates the Office for a Safe and Respectful Learning Environment within the Department of Education. It also sets specific requirements on how school officials must deal with incidents of bullying. Administrators, principals and other school officials who knowingly or willfully fail to meet the requirements could be subject to discipline, up to and including dismissal.
The bill passed the Senate 18-1 and now goes to the Assembly.
State Sen. Don Gustavson, R-Sparks, said he was appalled by testimony from victims during a hearing before a joint meeting of the Senate and Assembly education committees.
“Why have these teachers, principals and superintendents let this go to where it has so far?” Gustavson said before the vote on the Senate floor. “They should be punished for what they have allowed to happen.”
But Gustavson cast the lone “no” vote againt the bill, saying he thought the definition of bullying is “way too broad.”
State Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, said the measure could help victims and bullies alike.
“Hopefully this will give us the tools that we need to get help for not just the victim but for the person who’s the perpetrator,” said Hardy, who said his own granddaughter was a victim of school bullying.
The anti-bullying campaign is part of the Republican governor’s education agenda. His budget includes a new program called Social Workers in Schools, which would provide $36 million in grants to combat bullying. Another $300,000 in each of the next two years is also included in the governor’s budget to establish the Office for a Safe and Respectful Learning Environment.
Sandoval’s program sets up a 24-hour statewide hotline to report bullying. It mandates school officials notify a student’s parents or guardian by the end of the day and launch an investigation almost immediately.
— Sandra Chereb
Higher cigarette taxes considered
A Senate committee Tuesday considered even higher cigarette taxes than initially proposed by Gov. Brian Sandoval to help close a $144 million gap in anticipated revenues and the governor’s $7.4 billion spending plan.
An amendment to Senate Bill 483, the so-called “sunset” bill, would raise the tax on cigarettes by $1 per pack, up from the 40-cent increase originally sought, bringing the total to $1.80 per pack. The current tax rate is 80 cents.
The initial 40-cent increase was expected to generate another $81 million over the next two years. Upping the increase by another 60 cents would generate $111 million more, according to calculations by legislative fiscal staff.
All told, the higher cigarette taxes would generate $348 million more for the state general fund over the two-year budget cycle than current levels.
The sunset bill also includes an array of other taxes enacted in 2009 that were supposed to be temporary fixes as Nevada’s economy plummeted during the recession. But those levies, including higher payroll taxes and sales taxes, have twice been extended and Sandoval wants to make them permanent.
A leading lawmaker said passage of the sunset bill and Sandoval’s proposed business license fee increase, now in the Assembly, would close the funding gap to $33 million.
State lawmakers face a June 1 deadline to pass a tax package and budget or face a special legislative session.
— Sandra Chereb
Collective bargaining reform bill goes to governor
The first collective bargaining reform bill of the 2015 legislative session was headed to Gov. Brian Sandoval’s desk on Wednesday after getting a unanimous vote in the Assembly.
Senate Bill 158, one of the more modest proposals to change the law, would require three days of public notice of collective bargaining agreements before they could be approved by a local government elected body.
The bill was introduced by the Senate Government Affairs Committee and already has passed the Senate.
Committee Chairman Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said about the bill earlier this session: “I think it is good policy to let the public know what the public body has agreed to before they actually sign the paper. It’s all about transparency. I think the public has a right to know.”
The bill would require a local government employer to post a copy of any agreement, along with supporting materials, on its website three days before a vote is scheduled on the proposal.
Included in the posting would be any exhibits or other attachments to the proposed agreement, and if the agreement is a modification of a previous agreement, any language added or deleted. Supporting materials relating to the fiscal impact of an agreement also would have to be posted.
Assembly Minority Leader Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, supported the bill, but said the transparency required with the measure should apply to the salaries and benefits of all public officials.
— Sean Whaley
Lawmakers mull parental rights, child protection bills
On the heels of a recent Nevada Supreme Court decision to reinstate parental rights for one young couple, a bill that involves the termination of such rights was amended and approved by the Assembly Committee of Health and Human Services on Wednesday.
The Supreme Court’s order to reverse the Clark County Family Court ruling came after the parents appealed. The higher court concluded Family Court abused its discretion in the case.
“It’s very telling about the problems in practice in child welfare,” Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, said of the Supreme Court’s decision during the Wednesday meeting. Discussion juxtaposed the family reunification issue raised by the Supreme Court case with a bill calling for stronger consideration of the bond that forms between foster parents and foster children in deciding placements.
Under state law, there needs to be clear and convincing evidence of parental fault, and the best interests of the child need to be considered when deciding to terminate parental rights.
Lawmakers also expressed some concerns with Senate Bill 303, sponsored by Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas. The bill revises provisions related to when a child is in need of protection and provisions in proceedings related to termination of parental rights.
On Wednesday, the bill was amended to remove two paragraphs that called for the court to consider whether the child has formed a strong bond with the foster parents and whether the removal of the child from the foster parents is likely to cause psychological harm.
Foster parents and Family Services support the bill, which was approved by the committee, with four of its members voting against it.
— Yesenia Amaro
Sandra Chereb and Sean Whaley cover Carson City for GateHouse Media, owner of the Pahrump Valley Times. Yesenia Amaro is a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Committee recommends ending Foreclosure Mediation Program
A joint money subcommittee Wednesday recommended shutting down Nevada’s Foreclosure Mediation Program, citing a recovering housing market and fewer participants than at the height of the recession when the program was established.
Overseen by the Nevada Supreme Court, the Foreclosure Mediation Program was created by the Legislature in 2009 as the state’s economy tanked and the housing market collapsed.
According to statistics presented during Wednesday’s hearing, completed mediations have declined from a high of 7,558 in the 2011 fiscal year to a projected low of 662 in 2017.
Effectiveness is also waning. In 2010, 40 percent of homeowners who went through the program retained their homes. Projections estimate 15 percent by the end of the upcoming fiscal year.
Assemblyman Randy Kirner, R-Reno, said if the trend and projections hold, it would mean only about 100 people would benefit two years from now under a program that costs about $3 million to operate.
Democrats on the money panels argued that while Nevada’s economy is improving, the housing market has not fully recovered. Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, D-Las Vegas, said 282,000 homes in Nevada are still underwater, where people owe more than their homes are worth.
The program is supported by fees, with most coming from a $45 fee attached to filings of notices of default. A $400 mediation service fee also is assessed per case.
In 2010, the program collected $7 million in fees, but the revenues dwindled to $1 million last year.
— Sandra Chereb