Legislative endnotes, 2009


Leading members of the 2009 Nevada Legislature would like us to believe that through their "Herculean effort," they "saved the state" this spring in Carson City.

The first set of quotation marks bookends a phrase used by Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, on KNPR 88.9-FM's "State of Nevada" show Tuesday morning. The second set of quotation marks surrounds a phrase uttered by Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, on the same program.

There is a legitimate argument to be made. After all, the legislators arrived in the capital facing an ominous 44 percent decline in tax revenue and a governor whose proposed budget would practically destroy the state's higher education system. If Gov. Jim Gibbons' no-new-taxes budget would have passed into law, by many accounts one of the state's two universities would have had to close its doors.

Clearly, the legislators had a daunting task ahead of them, because although the Democrats had gained a majority in both chambers, they did not enjoy a veto-proof margin in the Senate. This meant a degree of bipartisanship would be needed to avoid the budget catastrophe outlined by Gibbons.

Buckley and Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, managed to persuade enough Republicans to join them in crafting a new budget that would avoid huge cuts in higher education and other state services. That "workable budget," as Buckley called it, included a "balanced approach" of spending cuts and tax increases.

The debates over how to deal with the budget deficit -- most, sadly, held behind closed doors -- surely were spirited. The Republicans could have sided with the governor and blocked any tax increases, but instead some of them recognized the severity of the crisis and worked with the Democratic majority. As Hardy put it, lawmakers were in "full-blown survival mode."

Because of their political importance in the Senate, the Republicans were able to extract concessions from the Democrats. The tax increases contain sunset provisions, which means they will go away in two years if the Legislature doesn't approve them again. Also, the Republicans negotiated significant reforms in the Public Employees Retirement System that will save the state millions over time.

In the end, the budget stitched together by the Legislature manages to avoid the devastating cuts envisioned by Gibbons. Although higher education is still facing a 12.5 percent budget reduction and state employees and teachers will see 4 percent pay cuts, the budget allows the state to muddle through the next two years. The plan relies on the belief that the economy will recover fairly soon and Nevada will thrive once again on the largesse of tourism and growth. If the economy recovers slowly, the 2011 Legislature will have its hands full figuring out how to deal with another budget shortfall.

So, was this a "Herculean effort" that "saved the state"? That's a bit much to swallow. It's only natural for legislative leaders to put the best possible face on what they accomplished, but this session hardly merits such colorful rhetoric.

One big reason: The '09 Legislature did nothing to overhaul the state's tax structure, which relies too heavily on the boom-and-bust nature of gaming and sales taxes. A broad-based business tax, which many experts and pragmatic leaders believe is the best solution, barely got a mention this session.

Still, let's give the 2009 Legislature credit for a few things:

* Overriding the governor's veto, the Legislature approved a bill granting domestic partnership rights to same-sex and oppositive-sex couples. This bill, sponsored by Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, is, as Horsford said on the radio, "a historic piece of legislation." Buckley said the bill's passage was "one of the best moments in my 14 years in the Legislature."

The Legislature also passed a bill outlawing discrimination against gays and lesbians in hotels, restaurants and other public places.

* Lawmakers approved legislation aimed at keeping Nevada in the forefront of the renewable energy revolution. Several bills will encourage development of solar, wind and geothermal projects in the state.

* Fixing a gross injustice, the Legislature is requiring the state and city to spend up to $70 million to reopen F Street in the historically black neighborhood of West Las Vegas. The F Street access to West Las Vegas was eliminated quietly as part of an Interstate 15 widening project. Learning of the plans after the fact, residents have protested and filed a federal lawsuit to stop the closure. The decision to close F Street, which would lead directly to the city's centerpiece of downtown redevelopment, smacked of the segregation that has stigmatized West Las Vegas for decades.

* The legislative session finished on time. State law gives the Legislature 120 days every other year to conduct its business. Often, it is unable to complete its work in that period, requiring costly and rancorous special sessions to be tacked on to the end. This year, Buckley, Horsford and Co. got their work done by the prescribed deadline.

They finished just in time to start focusing on the 2010 election.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/geoffschumacher.

 

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