POLITICAL NOTEBOOK: Reid hits Nebraska roadblock over highway funds

A Nebraska senator and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., are in a tiff over millions of dollars for Nevada roads, and just what is or isn’t allowed these days as Congress labors under a de facto ban on earmarked spending.

This story starts in 2005, when Congress designated $45 million to help build a futuristic magnetic levitation train line connecting Las Vegas to Anaheim, Calif.

But the money became frozen at the federal Department of Transportation after Reid withdrew his support for maglev in 2009 and said the funds could be better spent elsewhere.

A law passed in 2010 was to have cleared the way for the $45 million to be reallocated to the Nevada Department of Transportation to upgrade the Interstate 215 connector to McCarran International Airport. But that didn’t get the job done entirely, with NDOT officials estimating they may have received only $28 million so far.

And now Reid has run into an obstacle in an effort to steer remaining funding to the state agency. With the Senate debating a highway authorization bill this month, Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska has introduced an amendment to nullify the transfer.

The reason? Johanns says the Nevada-targeted funding is an "earmark," and Congress along with President Barack Obama are operating under an earmark ban.

"It’s a matter of trust," Johanns said in a statement. "The president said he would not sign any legislation containing an earmark, and Congress has promised the American people a highway bill without earmarks. I won’t break that promise."

Reid argues the money already was approved by Congress to be spent in Nevada, and he just wants it redirected.

It’s not an earmark, Reid insists. (Although if it was, it likely would not trouble Reid, who has long argued in favor of lawmaker prerogatives to direct federal spending.)

"There is no new spending in this provision, which provides Nevada with additional flexibility and supports more than 1,500 jobs in a state that has the highest unemployment rate in the country," Reid’s spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said.

The Senate will resume work on the highway bill when it returns to session next week. Stay tuned.

— Steve Tetreault

BERKLEY PLANS TAX DEDUCTION BILL

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., says she plans to introduce a bill to protect the deduction for state sales taxes, after Congress so far has failed to extend the tax break that expired at the end of 2011.

The Berkley bill would make the tax deduction a permanent part of the law. Currently, it must be renewed every few years, and Congress sometimes has waited until the last minute to act, or even passed legislation after the tax break expired and made it retroactive.

Making the sales tax deduction permanent would cost $37.1 billion over 10 years according to the Congressional Research Service. Berkley said she would pay for the bill "by ending taxpayer giveaways to Big Oil."

In 2009, 316,038 Nevadans claimed $456 million for state and local sales tax deductions on their federal tax returns. The benefit amounted to $1,443 per family, Berkley estimated, "enough for a family of four with two small children to buy groceries for seven weeks."

Four other bills in the House and two in the Senate already have been introduced, but congressional leaders have shown little interest so far.

Berkley already has co-sponsored one bill, and another is backed by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., whom she is challenging for election this year.

— Steve Tetreault

ONLINE VOTER REGISTRATION SAVINGS

You want to save Clark County a lot of money this election year?

Register to vote online, says Larry Lomax, registrar of voters for Nevada’s biggest county.

Lomax isn’t sure yet how much money the county might save by getting rid of extra paperwork and overtime costs in an election year, but he believes it could add up. As an example, Maricopa County, Ariz., which includes Phoenix and is twice the population of Clark County, has saved taxpayers more than $1 million since online registration began five years ago, according to a new Pew report.

So far this year, Lomax said, about 10 percent (1,310) of voter registration forms his office has received came in online, eliminating the need for a data entry clerk to type in the information.

In 2011, his office received 62,000 registration forms, which his staff handled with no overtime.

But in 2008, during the last presidential election cycle, he said his staff worked lots of extra hours to handle 368,000 applications, including 38,000 in the last week of registration before Election Day.

"A lot of overtime was required to get those forms in," Lomax said. "Even 10 percent of those numbers would have been enormously helpful. If we ever get to 70 percent or more online (registration) as Arizona and Washington say they are, it would be a significant savings."

A trained clerk enters about 160 applications in an eight-hour day, depending upon how many phone calls the person also handles, he said. So 20 online applications could save one staff hour of work.

Additional savings would come from eliminating the cost of the paper form at 5 cents each.

"Our program is still too young and limited to claim a meaningful savings," he said.

The online link to the Clark County Elections Department — clarkcountynv.gov/vote — now allows only first-time Clark County registrants with driver’s licenses to register to vote. Lomax said it would be updated soon to allow all registered voters across the Las Vegas Valley to go online to also change their party registrations and update their addresses.

State law was recently changed to allow online voting. Clark was the first of the state’s 17 counties to put it into effect. Washoe County plans to launch its online voter registration this spring.

— Laura Myers

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at 202-783-1760 or stetreault@stephensmedia. com. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC. Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.

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