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Horsford pursues unity to balance state budget

CARSON CITY — The first African-American leader of the state Senate said Wednesday that Republicans and Democrats must work together on a plan to balance the state budget without cutting essential services.

Las Vegas Democrat Steven Horsford, whose party took control of the Senate after Tuesday’s election, said the Legislature cannot “just come up with Band-Aids” to solve its growing budget problems.

Instead, it needs comprehensive short- and long-term plans that keep necessary services whole, he said.

While not saying whether he will support tax increases, Horsford, 35, said the parties must set aside differences and do what is best for the state.

Gov. Jim Gibbons plans to brief legislative leaders on the state’s growing revenue shortfall at a teleconference meeting Friday.

Earlier this week, the Economic Forum analyzed state tax revenue and decided the state needs to cut spending by an additional $250 million during the current fiscal year. The forum is a group of five business leaders who by law project how much money the state has available to spend.

That reduction is on top of the $1.2 billion that Gibbons and the Legislature already have cut out of the state’s two-year budget.

Horsford, who was elected majority leader at the Rio on Wednesday, expressed gratitude for his colleagues’ faith in him, adding that he is a native Nevadan, a Clark High School and University of Nevada, Reno graduate, and that he has worked in both rural and urban areas of the state.

The Democrats took over Senate leadership when Allison Copening defeated Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, in District 6, and Shirley Breeden edged out Sen. Joe Heck, R-Henderson, in District 5. That gave Democrats 12 of the 21 seats in the Senate. The last time they controlled the Senate was during the 1991 session.

Besides his legislative job, Horsford is the chief executive officer for Nevada Partners, a nonprofit employment training and career preparation organization. He and his wife, Dr. Sonya Horsford, have three children.

Horsford has been mentioned as someone President-elect Barack Obama might want in his administration, but the majority leader rejected the idea.

“Those rumors are unfounded,” Horsford said. “I have not been approached or offered anything. I am very committed to the state of Nevada.”

Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, called Horsford and congratulated him on a “tough campaign.”

Raggio said his party lost control of the Senate because of the surge across the country for Obama and Democrats.

A senator since 1973, Raggio has been majority leader at a record 10 legislative sessions.

“I have been in the minority before, and I told him I want us to work together,” said Raggio, who was easily re-elected Tuesday to a record 10th term in the Senate. “The ball is in their court now.”

But Raggio expressed hope that the 2009 session will not be contentious.

“There isn’t going to be a lot to argue about since we won’t have money. We are looking at a huge reduction for the fiscal year ’09 and probably additional 25 percent reductions in the subsequent year.”

Other than supporting a 3 percentage point increase in the room tax in Clark and Washoe counties, Raggio said he would oppose all tax increases.

In an advisory question Tuesday, voters in both counties backed the room tax increase, which would bring in about $120 million a year for public education if legislators pass it into law when the session convenes Feb. 2.

“A lot of us ran on campaign issues that taxes would not be increased,” Raggio said. “During an economic downturn, it is hard to justify raising taxes when individuals and businesses are hurting.”

Like Horsford, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, was not talking Wednesday about whether taxes should be raised to prevent additional state budget cuts.

She said that first, legislators must review state agency budgets and determine what programs are essential and whether available revenue covers their costs.

“Is the governor going to call for a 25 percent reduction in school spending and in health and human services?” asked Buckley, who was re-elected Assembly speaker by her colleagues in a meeting late Wednesday. “That is no solution. Is he going to release prisoners early and release the elderly from nursing homes?”

She has scheduled Dec. 8-9 and Dec. 15 meetings of the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee to discuss funding for schools, public safety and human services.

Buckley said she has not spoken with Gibbons since June. She said the administration also has not responded to her idea on how to secure additional money.

She suggested to Budget Director Andrew Clinger more than a month ago that an audit should be conducted to determine why the state has been receiving far less money in insurance premium taxes than anticipated.

These taxes generally are immune to a recession, according to Buckley. After averaging 8.2 percent annual increases for five years, insurance premiums taxes fell by 1.0 percent to $257 million last year.

Clinger said his office will “pursue” Buckley’s idea.

During a news conference Monday, Gibbons said he welcomed ideas on resolving the state’s budget problems. He said it does not matter who gets credit for ideas that help the state.

Democrats gained an additional seat in the Assembly on Tuesday and now have a veto-proof 28-14 majority.

Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, said she considered the loss of just one seat a victory for her party since many Republicans across the nation lost in the “Obama tsunami.”

“To lose just one seat in the Assembly is incredible,” she said.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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