Sharron Angle And Public School Funding: A Reponse To Jon Ralston

Yesterday, I drafted a post on ThinkProgress claiming that Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle and other Nevada lawmakers were “on the verge of shutting down all public education in the state of Nevada” before the state supreme court prevented this from happening. Nevada journalist Jon Ralston responded with a series of critical tweets:

Ralston is a good journalist, so he deserves a more fleshed out response to his objections that I provided in my three tweets responding to his criticism.

First, the basis for my claim that Angle and fourteen other Nevada lawmakers were prepared to cut off funds to Nevada’s public schools is the conclusion of six of the Nevada Supreme Court’s seven justices. In my original post, I set up this court decision as follows:

In 2003, the Nevada legislature enacted a budget which did not include education funding, on the theory that they would take up a second bill which ensured that the public schools could remain open when the school year began. Because the Nevada Constitution requires both a balanced budget and the state to fund education, this second bill would include a combination of tax increases and education spending.

The two bill strategy broke down, however, when a minority of the state Assembly — led by Sharron Angle — refused to enact any bill which raised the new revenue required to reopen the public schools. Because a two-thirds majority is necessary to enact any tax increases, Angle’s minority was on the verge of shutting down all public education in the state of Nevada.

This impasse broke when the state supreme court determined that the supermajority requirement must give way to the constitution’s two other provisions. In Guinn v. Legislature of the State of Nevada, six of the state supreme court’s seven justices determined that the legislature was “unable to fulfill its constitutional duties to fund the public schools and to adopt a balanced budget because it has not met the two-thirds vote requirement,” and that simply requiring the legislature to continue debating how to fund education would be “futile.”


The justices’ determination that further legislative debate would have been “futile” demonstrates their belief that Angle’s bloc was simply not going to provide the votes necessary to prevent a school shutdown. In other words, to the extent that I fell for “spin” misrepresenting Angle’s intent, six of seven justices were similarly taken in. Nevertheless, if these six justices were in error, than my post compounds that error by trusting their conclusion.

Second, Ralston claims that I gave the impression that Angle wanted to remove the requirement to fund education from Nevada’s constitution. I erred in drafting my original post if I conveyed this impression, and I apologize for that error. My intention was to convey that Angle’s actions would have thwarted this provision of the state constitution — a view bolstered by the decision in Guinn — not that she wanted to amend the constitution itself.

Finally, Ralston also calls Guinnnuts” and explains that the court (after retirements, a death and an electoral defeat drastically changed its membership) later rejected its reasoning.

The case which overruled Guinn provided only one, not-terribly-useful sentence of explanation: “The Nevada Constitution should be read as a whole, so as to give effect to and harmonize each provision.” If you accept Guinn’s determination that the legislature was at an impasse, however, then the Guinn court was in the impossible position of deciding which provision of the state constitution would be violated. Given this dreadful choice, it is easy to defend their decision to prefer two provisions that require very specific substantive results (funded public schools and a balanced budget) over one that merely set out a rule of legislative procedure.

So what do we know about Angle’s conduct in this whole debacle? We know that she passionately supports the same kind of anti-tax amendment that has led states like California into fiscal ruin. We also know that six state supreme court justices believed that she was prepared to let Nevada’s public schools shut down in service of her anti-tax principles. Nevertheless, because these justices did intervene in Nevada’s funding crisis, we can also never know what Angle would have done if the court had remained silent.