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For Democrats in Carson City, control only an illusion

The 2017 legislative session begins today, and Democrats have only the illusion of control.

In last year’s elections, Democrats won majorities in both the Senate, 11-9-1, and Assembly, 27-15. Leftists expect those majorities to push through liberal policy priorities: rolling back Republican-passed labor and education reforms, raising property taxes and increasing the minimum wage.

Fortunately, Democrats can’t achieve these goals without Republican support. Democrats need the signature of Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval on their bills, or they need Republican votes in the Assembly and Senate to get the two-thirds majority needed to override any Sandoval veto.

Republicans have leverage, and they’ve already boxed in Democrats on two significant issues: Education Savings Accounts and property tax increases. Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, has declared, “No ESA funding … no budget.” Sandoval has put $60 million into his budget to partially fund ESAs.

Roberson’s statement means nothing if Sandoval isn’t willing to veto the budget over ESAs. Roberson was Sandoval’s strongest ally in 2015. Read between the lines: Sandoval is going to play hardball for ESAs.

It’s already working. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, has signaled he’s willing to negotiate on ESA funding. As I wrote last month, Sandoval will determine whether ESAs are funded or not.

The Senate Republican caucus also has declared that its members will not support a property tax increase, which matters because tax increase bills require two-thirds majorities in both houses. This puts Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, who wants to be governor and may run in 2018, in a pickle.


 

Local government unions, powerful players in any Democratic primary, want a property tax increase. Ford, D-Las Vegas, doesn’t have the votes. Even if he did, Nevadans, especially older citizens who vote in midterm elections, hate property tax increases.

Further complicating matters for Ford: Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, who already has $3 million for his all-but-announced campaign for governor, can have it both ways. Sisolak, also a Democrat, has called for a legislative fix that increases the property tax cap — which pleases union bosses — but hasn’t come out in support of a specific legislative proposal. This would allow a Sisolak-supporting super-PAC to bash Ford in a gubernatorial primary for wanting to raise property taxes, while Sisolak can simultaneously tell unions he supported legislative action.

Expect Ford to be vocal about wanting to increase property tax caps while letting others try to advance it behind the scenes.

This pattern is going to play out for other major Democrat priorities, like another $1 billion-plus tax increase for new K-12 funding. If Democrats don’t announce a major tax increase proposal this week, they’re not serious about making it happen. Democrats have a history of proposing tax increases so late in a session that the proposals have no prayer of passage. They’re announced solely to convince the party’s liberal base that lawmakers tried really hard.

Sandoval is supportive of some liberal priorities. For instance, he’d probably sign a small minimum wage increase paired with overtime reform, but one that’s far from $15 an hour.

This reality will define the session. Democrats are in charge, but they aren’t in control.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Nevada section each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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