CARSON CITY — They tried cajoling.
They tried protesting.
They tried shaming.
None of those tactics helped Democrats in the Legislature win Republican support for a tax increase that would bust Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed $5.8 billion general fund spending limit for 2011-13.
If anything, the stalemate in Carson City is intensifying with nearly two-thirds of the 120-day legislative session already done.
The latest Democratic tactic to win Republican votes unfolded last week with rare “Committee of the Whole” sessions in the Assembly and state Senate chambers aimed at highlighting potential cuts to public schools and higher education.
Democrats hoped public pressure to maintain government programs would make Republican lawmakers uncomfortable defending Sandoval’s budget.
Republicans didn’t wilt.
If anything, the public symbolic showdown sessions appears to have resulted in both sides digging further into their positions.
TACTICS DON’T WORK
“They don’t get it. We don’t care,” Assemblyman Mark Sherwood, R-Henderson, said in response to pressure tactics that have involved pleas for compromise, snubbing of Republican bills and the looming possibility that majority Democrats will use the upcoming redistricting process to draw recalcitrant anti-tax conservatives out of their jobs.
Sherwood called the Assembly Committee of the Whole, which culminated in a nonbinding, party line vote on Sandoval’s recommended budget, a “farce.”
He accused Democrats of using the unusual forum to set up a budget showdown near the end of the session in June instead of dealing with Assembly Republicans and their demands for spending policy reforms.
“They are looking for an excuse, because they don’t have the moral high ground,” said Sherwood, an outspoken freshman. “They are looking for an excuse to say, ‘You made us do this.’ ”
There was similar grumbling on the Senate side, where Democrats hold an 11-10 advantage and were missing Sen. Mike Schneider of Las Vegas during a Committee of the Whole meeting Wednesday which didn’t include a vote.
Schneider was back Friday when the Senate Committee of the Whole discussed Sandoval’s plan to cut higher education by $162 million. No votes were taken on that issue, but there was more bickering between Democrats and Republicans with Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, accusing Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, of cutting off conservative speakers and not letting Republicans ask questions. Horsford denied that was the case.
It might have been Good Friday, but no one was showing toleration for the other side’s views.
Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, said the sessions proved only that if Democrats want to approve a budget they will need to move toward the Republican position.
The closest Hardy came to offering a compromise was to suggest that Democrats approve Sandoval’s budget and then negotiate for “add backs” to favored programs, which amounts to dividing whatever money comes in above official revenue projections.
Hardy, who voted to increase taxes when he was in the Assembly, said it’s about the best Democrats can hope for from Senate Republicans.
“If you are an alcoholic and don’t believe you are an alcoholic, you have a classic case of denial,” Hardy said. “In this building we have had a lot of denial.”
HOPES DIM FOR BUDGET BILL
The Republican response to the latest Democratic pressure doesn’t leave much hope for a budget deal anytime soon.
On one side, Sandoval and legislative Republicans insist the $5.8 billion proposal on the table is balanced and appropriate.
On the other side, Democrats say the state needs to spend as much as $2.5 billion more to maintain adequate spending on education, social services and other programs. And all signs indicate they remain unwilling to provide Republicans the votes needed to approve Sandoval’s plan even if it means going past the June 6 deadline to conclude the session.
“I am prepared to stay here as long as it takes,” Horsford said.
He and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, remain adamant that Republicans will need to soften their stance against raising taxes.
“It must be resolved by compromise and consensus,” Horsford said.
Oceguera said Thursday he is expecting Republicans will need to come toward the Democratic position for the Legislature to approve a budget.
“Compromise means compromise on both sides,” Oceguera said.
Republicans, at least in the Assembly, have laid out five reforms they want Democrats to support before considering a vote to delay “sunset” or expiration dates on about $650 million in existing taxes.
They include reforms to prevailing wage law, adoption of publicly funded vouchers for parents to pay for private school, cutbacks in collective bargaining rights for public employees, changes to reduce construction defect lawsuits, and changes to the Public Employee Retirement System.
Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said Democrats allowed bills addressing those reforms to die with an April 15 deadline for bills to clear committee.
“They took the vehicles we needed to negotiate,” Goicoechea said.
He said there is little chance for Democrats to pick off any two individual Assembly Republicans they need to approve a tax increase.
That’s because the caucus has an agreement of its own that no one member will stray from the pack on important votes.
“We don’t go anywhere on a budget bill or a tax proposal unless the majority of the caucus goes, and that takes nine votes,” Goicoechea said.
Oceguera said Democrats have offered bills on education, construction lawsuit and retirement reform, although the bills still in play fall far short of Republican demands.
“If they think we’re going to do everything they want to get nothing, they are sorely mistaken,” he said.
One looming issue that could upset the stalemate is redistricting. That’s the process in which politicians use new census figures to draw new district lines every 10 years.
“That is the 800-pound gorilla right now hiding behind the door,” said Carole Vilardo, president of the Nevada Taxpayers Association, who has attended every session of the Legislature since 1973. “That can be used as a bargaining chip … for purposes of getting a vote on an issue.”
Both sides are also awaiting a May 2 meeting of the Economic Forum, the five-member panel charged with making official revenue projections the state must use to generate budget numbers.
If the projections come in higher than expected, it could mean more money for horse-trading and less pressure to confront the issue of raising taxes.
If projections are at or below expectations, the stalemate could continue as late as July 1, when some form of resolution will be needed to ensure state government can continue operating.
In the meantime, there are few signs Republicans will break ranks or Democrats will agree to demands for dramatic reform.
“We’ll just support the governor, and we’ll see you in June,” Goicoechea said.
Review-Journal Capiral Bureau Chief Ed Vogel contributed to this report. Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman
@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.