CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Gov. Brian Sandoval proposed expanding all-day kindergarten to nearly half of Nevada's elementary schools, boosting programs for English language learners, and investing more in the Millennium Scholarship during his State of the State address Wednesday.
Education dominated the speech and accounts for much of the additional spending Sandoval proposes in his two-year, $6.5 billion budget, which was released the same day.
"Our greater challenge is helping a Nevada that is still on the horizon," Sandoval said. "I want us to agree that what we find there must be the best it can be."
The Republican governor's speech, delivered in Carson City and broadcast statewide, was largely optimistic even while the state continues to face the nation's highest unemployment rate at 10.8 percent.
He called the last two years "a success story," citing 30,000 new jobs in the state in the past 24 months. He gave the state's housing crisis just a passing mention toward the end of the speech, sandwiching it between talk of increased autism support funding and fewer furlough days for state employees.
"We are emerging from the worst economic crisis of our generation," he said. "I can confidently report to the people of Nevada that the state of our state grows stronger every day."
Among the specifics of his education plan, Sandoval is calling for more funding for English language learners, who make up more than 15 percent of the state's students, and expanding all-day kindergarten options. He wants to put more into Teach for America — a program akin to the Peace Corps that places young college graduates in teaching posts at needy schools.
He proposed a school-choice bill that would give businesses a tax credit for donating to a scholarship fund. Students at low-performing schools could use the funds to attend a different school of their choice.
In the Democratic response, Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, of Las Vegas, said Sandoval's education efforts fall short.
"During the 2011 session, Gov. Sandoval proposed significant amounts of cuts to our schools," Denis said in prepared remarks. "This year he is promising the world, but his policies won't change our schools soon enough."
Denis also questioned how Sandoval's budget would pay for his education initiatives while also proposing payroll tax cuts for businesses.
"We disagree with this approach," Denis said. "It places more of the burden on middle-class families while giving businesses even more generous tax breaks."
The Legislature convenes Feb. 4.
Sandoval also proposed expanding the national Jobs for America's Graduates program, which places a specialist in schools to assist potential high school dropouts. A pilot program operates in seven Nevada schools, and the governor wants to expand it to up to 50 additional schools and nearly 2,000 more students in the next year.
In higher education, Sandoval wants to apply enough money to support the Millennium Scholarship Fund through 2017. The popular scholarship provides Nevada students money to attend Nevada colleges.
After the governor's speech, Dan Klaich, chancellor of Nevada's higher education system, praised the governor for stopping cuts to public education, which has seen funding slashed during the recession.
"There's a lot to be thankful for," he said.
Sandoval called education "the foundation of economic growth," but said his greatest priority has been economic development itself.
Sandoval listed companies — such as Apple Inc., Urban Outfitters Inc. and NOW Foods — that have brought capital investment and jobs to Nevada, and he praised economic development officials for their work to attract more.
He even promised trade missions to Mexico and Israel, in addition to the missions he's already led to China, Korea and Canada.
"I am committed to leaving no stone unturned — no road not taken," he said in the speech.
The governor also pledged to move ahead with establishing Nevada as a leader in online gambling. His administration has legislation being drafted paving the way for Nevada to join with other states to offer Internet poker.
"No opportunity is as rich with promise as our primary industry, gaming," Sandoval said.
Sandoval's budget includes expanding Medicaid eligibility as called for under the federal Affordable Care Act, a move the governor said will insure an additional 78,000 of Nevada's neediest residents. But the governor, who opposed the federal law and hoped for its repeal, said he would insist Nevada be able to opt out of the program in future years "should circumstances change."