Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, said in a speech Saturday on the Senate floor that his goal is to restore as much funding to education as possible. Gibbons' proposed budget included steep cuts to higher education that Horsford said could force Nevada to close one of its two state universities.
Asked after the speech whether he would be willing to raise $900 million in taxes, which would be the highest tax increase in state history, Horsford said he is "willing to consider every option that protects education."
"We are in a different time. We are at a different point," Horsford said. "The crisis is more apparent today than it was ever before, and this is about our state's future."
"At this point, I will fight tooth and nail to preserve as much funding to education as possible," Horsford said. "We cannot do everything, but we must preserve funding for education."
Lawmakers have said they will be closing education budgets on Monday. In previous budget hearings, legislators serving on Senate and Assembly money committees indicated that they would not approve the governor's proposed 36 percent cuts to higher education, and would likely make 11 percent cuts to the system instead.
But it is clear after Friday's revenue projections from the state Economic Forum that in order to achieve that goal, significant tax increases would be necessary.
Horsford and other key lawmakers have been meeting with business and community leaders to discuss the necessary steps to solve the crisis.
"I met with the superintendents from throughout the state yesterday," Horsford said. "They're talking about cutting instructional days for students if they had to make the type of cuts the governor is suggesting. They're talking about having to increase class sizes, even more so."
"We will not be able to protect or preserve the number of qualified teachers in the classroom if we follow the governor's approach on this," Horsford added. "And I draw the line. We will not cut education funding the way the governor suggests. There is another way to do this. And as difficult as it is to ask people for revenue, it's important that we do that at this point to protect education."
In a press conference earlier this week, Gibbons stated that he would submit a revised budget proposal that conforms to the state Economic Forum's latest revenue projections and wouldn't call for higher taxes. The cuts will include additional reductions to state employee salaries, beyond the six percent cuts he's already proposed.
Andrew Clinger, state budget chief, said that those proposed salary cuts could be about 12 percent.
"When you're in a hole, you've got to stop spending," Gibbons said. "Now is not the time to raise taxes."
"There are many problems with his approach," said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas. "Two-thirds of that cut would be passed on to the classroom, and that would bring his proposed cuts to education to over $1 billion. K-12 education cannot withstand a $1 billion cut."
Legislative budget subcommittees already have added back more than $60 million to the budget, mainly to health care programs, and Buckley said, "These are not discretionary items."
"What's discretionary about not wanting to cut children off their autism treatment or providing medicine to the mentally ill? We're required to do that under the Constitution," Buckley said.
The sentiments were echoed by other legislators who work on the money committees.
"The vast majority of the budgets have been closed without any changes, and the money we added back was a really small amount," said Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno. The add-backs so far have amounted to about one percent of the state budget.
"If we didn't add some of the money back, we'd be cutting off essential services," Gansert said. "We need to have mental health clinics in our rural areas. There's no question about it, to me."
Gansert said she has not decided on whether she will support additional cuts to state salaries. She said that employee salaries were raised by six percent in the past two years, so the governor's proposed six percent salary decrease would bring salaries back to those earned in July, 2008.
Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno said that refusing to raise taxes but cutting state employee salaries would not help stimulate the economy.
"When you cut worker's salaries, they're going to have less money to spend," Leslie said. "It's a balancing act. We have to take all of this into consideration."
Buckley said that staff will be working over the weekend to determine the amount of money needed to fund the governor's budget and the Legislature's proposed add-backs. Besides the education funding, money committees intend to close budgets on state salaries, public employee benefits and Medicaid next week.