Assembly speaker calls Sandoval comments 'irrelevant' in budget debate

CARSON CITY -- What Gov. Brian Sandoval says has become "irrelevant," as legislators work to develop a budget and tax increase plan that will protect education from major cuts, Assembly Speaker John Oceguera said Wednesday.

The Las Vegas Democrat said he was dismayed that Sandoval told a conservative group in Las Vegas on Tuesday that he would not "trade taxes for anything."

"I think quite frankly the governor has made himself irrelevant in the budget process," Oceguera said. "The budget is in our hands now. So what if he wants to veto it or not."

Oceguera added that Democrats intend to come up with a tax and budget plan that has two-thirds support of both houses of the Legislature, a margin that is enough to override a governor's veto.

During a speech to the Keystone Corp. business group Tuesday, the governor said he will continue to oppose Democratic leaders who want to increase taxes and slammed them for criticizing his proposed budget without offering a plan of their own.

The governor's speech came a day after he vetoed a Democrat-supported bill that would have allowed school districts to use $300 million in bond reserves to construct or renovate schools.

Sandoval put the same money in his budget for school districts to use for operating costs.

Both Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, and Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, said their caucuses are united in support of Sandoval and in opposition to tax increases.

"Sandoval is going to hold," Goicoechea said. "Our caucus is going to hold. The D's haven't come forward with their plan except new taxes."

"The governor has a balanced budget, and we are supporting it," McGinness said. "Our caucus is solid."

Unless Democrats pick up at least a couple of Republican votes in each house, then no tax increases can be approved.

Under a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds vote on tax increases and a two-thirds vote to override a governor veto, Sandoval remains relevant unless several Republican break ranks and back tax increases.

If Oceguera thinks he can pick up some Republican support for taxes, then Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, said he is mistaken.

"A budget proposal that includes revenue or tax increases, I don't think gets two-thirds support right now, and I don't think would ever have two-thirds support," said Brower, who some earlier saw as a possible yes vote on taxes.

"Nobody prefers the cuts that we are talking about. At the same, the financial reality is we only have so much money."

Oceguera said Democrats are courting Republican support through their actions in closing state agency budgets in line with Sandoval's thinking.

He noted they voted Tuesday to cut the Family to Family program, agreeing with Sandoval, although some Democrats had objections.

"I think what we do on cuts proves how serious we are," Oceguera said. "We are serious about cuts, about education reform. But there are a few things we will not stand with the governor on. We will stand for education. I think the public is with us on that."

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, did not go as far as to call Sandoval irrelevant. He said that he continues to meet with the governor and hopes a "more balanced solution" can be reached.

Horsford said Democrats cannot increase revenue without Republican support but added Sandoval's proposed budget will not be approved without Democrat support.

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn June 6, but a special session appears likely unless a compromise can be reached.

Under Sandoval's proposed $5.8 billion budget, state support for public education would be cut by $200 million, or 6 percent, and support for higher education would be reduced by $162 million, or 16 percent this fall and 29 percent in the fall of 2012.

The Clark County School District faces a $407 million cut partly because of a drop in property taxes and local room tax and sales tax revenues. Its plan is to lay off more than 1,834 teachers and other school workers.

Oceguera said it will be "three weeks to four weeks" before legislators finish approving changes to Sandoval's budget. They have to wait until after the May 2 meeting of the Economic Forum, the group of five business leaders who by law determine how much money the state will have to spend.

The economy is showing signs of recovery, but Oceguera doubts forum members will find there is much more than the $50 million in additional revenue available in its last projection, on Dec. 1.

Although there is no magic number yet on how much in tax increases Democrats will seek, the speaker said he all along thought revenue is about $2.5 billion short of real needs of state government. All that money cannot be generated through tax increase, but a portion can, he said.

Capital Bureau reporter Benjamin Spillman contributed to this report. Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at or 775-687-3901.