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Legislators repeat same old themes at town hall session

CARSON CITY — Assemblyman Pat Hickey’s town hall meeting Monday proved one thing: Neither party is budging as they head into the last 49 days of the legislative session.

During the 2½-hour meeting, Republicans held firm to their position not to raise taxes, and Democrats remained inflexible in their view that taxes must be raised to save public schools and higher education from crushing cuts.

About 200 people attended the meeting on the state of the legislative session — the first of its kind in at least 30 years.

Hickey, R-Reno, said he hoped to hear the Democrats’ “endgame” now rather than during a “let’s made a deal fiasco” at a special session in July or August.

He didn’t even have to ask his question.

Assembly Ways and Means Chairwoman Debbie Smith, D-Reno, repeated what she has been saying all session.

If higher education is cut by more than $160 million as proposed by Gov. Brian Sandoval, she said, then young people won’t get the educations they need to get good jobs, and businesses looking to relocate in Nevada will avoid the state. If mental health spending is reduced, then those patients will end up in the streets and emergency rooms and cost taxpayers even more.

“We mean business,” Smith said. It’s wrong to assume voters “believe under any circumstance that we cannot raise revenue to balance the budget.”

Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, fired back: “Everyone in each house needs to understand the reality. You are not going to get a state tax increases out of the Senate.” Democrats are trying to “demonize Republicans for not caring about children, the needy, K-12 education and higher education,” but that strategy will fail.

Hickey had called in economists, lobbyists, educators and legislators to give their views on what is happening as the Legislature passed the halfway mark. But his list of speakers was packed on the conservative side.

Hickey called on several Republican freshmen to speak but no freshmen Democrats, a roster that includes a record number of African-Americans and Hispanics.

Freshman Assemblyman Cresent Hardy, R-Mesquite, complained about a “woe is me” attitude permeating the Legislature and society in general.

But Hardy and fellow Republican freshmen echoed that attitude, complaining about favorite bills being killed. Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, wanted to limit lawsuits over construction defects; Hardy, an Ohio-style law to reduce the prevailing wages; and Roberson, collective bargaining change.

But AFL-CIO state secretary-treasurer Danny Thompson reminded the crowd that state workers do not have collective bargaining. He said the rising cost of Medicaid is what is crippling state government, which spends more than $900 million in state funds on the health care program as the number of people qualifying for it grows with rising unemployment.

Heidi Gansert, Sandoval’s chief of staff, said the cuts are difficult but necessary. But she said that the unemployment rate dropped to 13.2 percent and that more jobs were created in March than in any month since 2005.

At the end of the meeting, Hickey said he cannot support tax increases and said everyone must subscribe to Sandoval’s call for “shared sacrifice.”

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

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