CARSON CITY -- Democratic legislators battled Republican legislators during two special sessions in 2003 over a proposed budget they felt shortchanged education.
After two long and bitter special sessions, they raised taxes by $833 million with support from half of the state Senate Republicans and five Assembly Republicans.
In 2009, Democrats again battled their Republican counterparts over a budget that they felt shortchanged education. They temporarily increased taxes by $800 million after overriding Gov. Jim Gibbons' veto of their tax bills and budget. They got enough Republican support to pass the tax increases, barely escaping a special session, but did not need an immediate special session to complete their work.
The special session didn't occur until 2010, when revenues fell far short of expectations and they had to trim spending.
The Legislature has held five special sessions since 2005, all because of a lack of revenue for state agencies.
So, it should be no surprise that the coming 2011 legislative session could be a repeat of those sessions, with long battles over education spending and stinging debates between Democrats and Republicans over whether taxes should be increased.
Democrats are saying the proposed budget Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval proposed on Jan. 24 would devastate public schools and higher education at a time when Nevada needs a quality education system to attract new businesses.
Sandoval's $5.8 billion, two-year general fund budget plan is 6.4 percent, or $402 million less than current spending; but Democrats vehemently contest those figures, contending there is a budget shortfall of about 30 percent.
The 120-day legislative session begins Feb. 7 and ends on June 6.
The antipathy shown by Democrats toward Sandoval's budget proposal already makes it possible, if not probable, that a special session in June will be needed to resolve their differences.
Each day the Legislature remains in session after June 6 costs about $50,000.
School districts are supposed to finish their budgets for next fall by May 15. When legislators remained in special session until mid-summer in 2003 before approving funding bills, some school officials complained they missed out in hiring needed faculty for fall classes.
Today, the governor and Republicans in the Legislature can't seem to agree with Democratic legislators on much of anything, particularly the amount Sandoval is proposing to cut from public education. He says 9 percent; Democrats say 27 percent.
Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, won't even concede that tax increases are necessary, but he and his colleagues have forwarded no alternative budget.
He said legislators first need to examine all state budgets and create their own spending plan "week by week" over the next several months before beginning to look at taxes.
So once again legislators are expected to wait until the last possible moment of the session before telling Nevadans that their taxes might be raised.
That's how things are often done in Carson City, where decisions can be made outside public scrutiny since legislators exempted themselves from the state's open meeting law.
In 2009, legislative leaders held dozens of private, closed-door meetings on state spending, emerged a few days before adjournment with their tax plan, and then passed it after a scant number of public hearings.
In fact, no hearings were even held on the bill to increase car registration fees.
Republican leaders were surprisingly quiet during three days of pre-session hearings on Sandoval's budget proposal last week.
"It's not my style," said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, the leading Republican in the pre-session hearings. "I just don't like that aggressive approach to people. I treat people like I want to be treated."
Cegavske said Republicans are unified in their opposition to tax increases and support for Sandoval's budget proposal.
She doesn't think they need to remind people constantly why state budgets face cuts: Nevada is in a recession and the revenues aren't there.
"Do you think any of us really want to cut education?" Cegavske asked. "We can't be doing everything we want to do, because we don't have the money. This is a very down time for Nevada, and if we spend money on a special session, shame on us."
In contrast to the Republican quiet, state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Assembly Majority Leader Marcus Conklin, both D-Las Vegas, showed a lot of emotion and repeatedly made fiery objections about the spending reductions during the pre-session hearings.
The hearings resume Tuesday.
Without using notes, Horsford frequently cited studies and mentioned what other states have done in handling spending in distressed economies.
But there were no strong and emotional responses from Cegavske and Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, as the Democrats repeatedly criticized Sandoval for his cuts to public schools and higher education.
Oceguera was more reserved, but he held two news conferences after the hearings to let key Assembly Democrats emphasize their distaste for the cuts.
Republican leaders didn't invite the news media in for a chat.
The leading state Senate Republican, new Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, wasn't even around. McGinness isn't a member of the budget review committees. He was in Fallon while Democrats attacked Sandoval's budget.
With McGinness at home and longtime state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, retired, the task of leading the Senate Republicans fell to Cegavske, a 15-year legislator.
"I am asking questions," Cegavske said. "I am trying to get answers. Our job is to put this puzzle together. The Democrats did what Democrats always do. Is that what people want? After the last election, I had enough of aggressive behavior."
Horsford attacked Sandoval from the moment he ended his 50-minute State of the State message.
"Gov. Sandoval offered a budget that would gut public education and gut our kids' futures as a result. I will not accept a budget that extinguishes all hope for a new Nevada," Horsford said.
At one point in the pre-session hearings, Cegavske did accuse unnamed Democrats, in an even and well-tempered voice, of being "rude" toward Heidi Gansert, Sandoval's chief of staff.
Gansert later said she did not feel "at all" that anyone was rude to her.
She must work with the Democratic majority over the next four months if there is any hope of passing Sandoval's budget.
But Democrats cannot pass tax increases and add to Sandoval's budget without securing a two-thirds majority in both houses. They need at least three Republican senators and two Republican Assembly members to pass any taxes. And that assumes every Democrat will vote to increase taxes.
Democrats might be losing some support in the court of public opinion. Reno radio talk shows have been mocking Oceguera for his decision to buy $30,000 in fitness equipment for the Legislature when the economy is hemorrhaging.
Callers repeatedly have questioned why the state should spend more money if the speaker can find money for gym equipment. Several health clubs, all with showers and which charge as little as $10 a month, are within a half-mile of the Legislative Building.
The gym equipment purchase even has become the talk in bars and state employee break rooms.
"This is the one session I would not have spent a dime for anything we don't need to conduct the business we have to do," Cegavske said.
Oceguera defended the gym equipment purchase, pointing to the need for legislators to stay in shape during a grueling session in which they might have to work regularly during evenings.
But Cegavske said the decision to purchase the equipment should have been made by all 63 legislators, not one person.
She said she bought a local health club membership.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901.