Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012 | 2 a.m.
State Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, announced last week a $20 million-a-year plan to help Clark County students learn English. The bill would expand state aid to preschools, where state money is almost nonexistent. Clark County School District would be able to serve 6,400 young English language learners taught by 400 teachers and teacher aides.
It made for great, if obvious, politics — playing up a Southern Nevada program tailored to Hispanics, a key electoral demographic, and helping young children learn English. All this a month before Election Day.
But to say the program does not exactly fit into the wheelhouse Roberson established for himself during his freshman term last year is an understatement.
Roberson relished his role as the conservative fighter in 2011, attacking the state teachers' union on the floor of the Senate. He led the majority of Senate Republicans in voting against Gov. Brian Sandoval and Democratic leadership’s compromise to extend about $600 million in taxes.
“It’s the lazy legislator who says, ‘We can’t balance the budget and we need to raise taxes,’” he said in 2011.
Now, he’s all for extending the taxes, as proposed by Sandoval, and most Senate Republicans running for office are with him, too.
“I will not cut a penny out of education,” he said Friday in an interview in which he also vehemently denied politics played a role in his preschool proposal. “I would like to increase funding to education.”
The program proposed by Roberson underscores a perceived shift by Republicans at the state level. In 2010, they campaigned on, and in 2011 they attempted to govern by, a philosophy of cutting government and rolling back taxes. Now, their message is one of preserving education and keeping taxes at existing levels.
“I almost don’t know who these guys are,” said Sen. Mo Denis, the Las Vegas Democrat in position to be Roberson’s counterpart in the state Senate. “It’s not what they were talking about in 2011.”
Republican state Senate candidates from Sen. Greg Brower in Reno to Mari Nakashima St. Martin in Las Vegas have promised to not cut education, even if that means raising taxes. The Senate Republican caucus, in fact, recruited and endorsed candidates in its five key Senate races who did not sign a written pledge not to raise taxes.
Like Roberson, Brower voted against the tax compromise in 2011, but now said that he’d consider all tax options brought before him.
And some lawmakers who have signed the “Tax Pledge” are backtracking to the point where it looks like dissembling.
Tax-pledge signer Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, on the political talk show “To the Point” was asked about that pledge last week by host Anjeanette Damon, who is also the political editor at the Las Vegas Sun.
He noted that lawmakers could raise taxes on one side as long as taxes are lowered someplace else.
Damon said: “But when you sign it, you're pretty much saying the state government has enough money to provide the services it needs to provide.”
Hambrick: "Not necessarily. What we're saying is we need to limit the spending of government."
Roberson told political commentator Jon Ralston that money for his ESL program could be found within the existing $6.2 billion budget.
Roberson, in a statement, said the program will allow children the opportunity to succeed.
“Nothing we do in Carson City is more important,” he said.
In Friday's interview, Roberson, said the state made significant cuts during the 2011 legislative session.
“I don’t think I’ve changed,” he said. He’s still a conservative. “You can be pragmatic and reasonable and a conservative,” he said. He also said the program came about by talking to School District leaders. “This has nothing to do with the election,” he said. “It will be important after the election. It will be a priority next session.”
Denis, the Democratic Senate leader, said Roberson’s plan appeared to him to be pandering.
He questioned whether the talk now would lead to more moderate votes during the 2013 legislative session.
“I’m all for people willing to change,” he said. “But right now, it’s just them talking about doing things differently.”