Nevada initiatives facing final call during lame-duck session

WASHINGTON -- Much is at stake for Nevadans in the lame-duck session that Congress convened Monday, including millions of dollars in sales tax write-offs for families and the continuation of unemployment benefits for thousands of people still out of work.

Congressional leaders have yet to determine how long the post-election session will last or what legislation will be considered.

There are a few must-pass items such as a giant spending bill to keep the government running at least through the holidays or perhaps through the entire fiscal year.

Although several of the bills on the agenda have broad effects in Nevada, others are more targeted. One would block a planned gravel quarry at Sloan Hills near neighborhoods in Henderson. Another would grant 2,085 acres of federal land that someday could be a North Las Vegas campus for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"There is plenty up in the air that we hope will be worked out over the next couple of days," said Tom Brede, a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Reid, the Senate majority leader, has influence on which bills will see Senate floor time and which might be passed quickly and quietly as Congress races to a conclusion for the year.

"I am hoping this is going to be productive because we have a lot of issues on our plate," said Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.

Nevadans, and all Americans, will be affected by how Congress decides issues that have grabbed headlines, such as extending the low tax rates that were passed in the early years of President George W. Bush's tenure, revising the estate tax system and providing the government with new powers to order recalls of contaminated food.

Nevada is one of only eight states where residents can take full advantage of a tax deduction for state and local sales taxes. Berkley said that makes it most important to Silver State families that lawmakers renew the tax break that otherwise will disappear at the end of the year.

Berkley and other lawmakers said it was not yet clear how Congress will take up that tax break. According to the Internal Revenue Service, 345,244 Nevadans claimed more than $546 million in 2008 deductions for state and local sales taxes.

Other targeted tax benefits that are expiring for individuals include a deduction for teachers who buy class supplies, deductions for college tuition and certain contributions to charity. For businesses, the expiring benefits include research tax credits.

Bills that do not pass now can be reintroduced in the two-year session that starts in January. But it could be now or never for some of them as Republicans who take control of the House in January might have different priorities.

As an example, Berkley said, an extension of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed that deadlocked Congress for weeks this summer before finally passing will expire at the end of November and might not be taken up next year.

Likewise, legislation by Berkley and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., that would provide additional payments to unemployed workers in high-jobless states who have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of benefits allowed by current law could face a tougher audience next year.

"Judging from the past record and past votes and political philosophy, I don't see much interest on the other side of the aisle to provide unemployment benefits for people and certainly not extended to those who have reached the 99-week cap," Berkley said.

"We have to extend unemployment benefits now, or else a whole lot of people are going to have a very, very dismal holiday season," she said.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 38,000 Nevadans would run out of benefits if federally funded unemployment insurance payments expire at the end of the month.

Also pending in the lame-duck session is legislation to legalize Internet gambling, a bill supported by some Nevada lawmakers and promoted by poker interests that prompted House hearings.

If anything passes, Berkley said, it might be limited to legalizing online poker.

"I would say if push came to shove, we'd go with poker only," Berkley said. "If I can't get a whole loaf, I would take half a loaf."

Other Nevada bills facing a final call include the following:

■ The Lake Tahoe Restoration Act of 2009 would authorize $415 million for additional fire control, storm water and watershed management projects .

■ The Hoover Power Allocation Act would reauthorize the distribution of electricity from the dam for the next 50 years, including new shares for Indian tribes and other customers not previously served.

■ The Sloan Hills Withdrawal Act would slap a no-mining designation on 800 acres outside Henderson that has been proposed for a gravel quarry.

■ The Southern Nevada Higher Education Lands Act would grant the Nevada higher education system 2,085 acres near Nellis Air Force Base for a future UNLV campus and research park.

■ One bill would allow the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to buy 115 acres of federal land to add to its parking.

■ The American Solar Energy Pilot Leasing Act would authorize two valleys in Lincoln County as "solar energy development zones" where leases for commercial sun power projects would be auctioned and fast-tracked.

■ One bill would dedicate 1,150 acres of the Nellis Dunes northeast of Las Vegas to off-road vehicle enthusiasts.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760.