CARSON CITY — A pair of last-minute bills that could divert tax money to privately run sports stadiums had a rough landing in the Nevada Legislature.
The proposals backed by Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, would allow for tax districts and surcharges to direct tens of millions of dollars that would otherwise go to government into financing for sports stadiums in Clark and Washoe counties.
But the complicated, late-arriving bills ran into problems that threaten to undermine them. Lawmakers struggled to unravel the details and were wary of falling into legislative traps with only three days remaining in the 120-day legislative session.
“There are a lot of questions still, and it is kind of hard to get all these bills like this at the last minute and often extremely difficult to get them through,” said Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno.
It’s typical for pet projects or politically prickly bills to materialize at the end of a legislative session when there is less time for scrutiny or for opposition to mobilize.
The stadium bills, Senate Bills 501 and 502, are particularly ambitious because they attempt to use the final days of the session to tackle an issue as complex and controversial as how the government should go about choosing and helping to finance a major development in Las Vegas.
“Typically, agreements are not made until the end,” said Danny Thompson, secretary-treasurer of the Nevada AFL-CIO, a former legislator. “That is the way this place works.”
The stadium bills materialized in recent days in the background of a major budget battle between the Democrat-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.
SB501 was introduced Monday, a holiday and a day most press and lawmakers were focused on final talks in the budget battle.
The bill identifies three types of districts that could divert sales, property, live entertainment and other taxes into partial financing for a stadium project aimed at attracting professional sports to Las Vegas.
It directs the Clark County Commission to pick one of the districts, each of which is tailored to fit one of three competing proposals:
■ A proposed stadium, retail and residential project at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that would benefit from an option in the bill for a district requested by the Nevada System of Higher Education.
■ A downtown Las Vegas arena project, which would benefit from a district to be created in a redevelopment area.
■ A proposed soccer-baseball-basketball project west of Interstate 15 near Mandalay Bay, which would benefit from an option in the county’s jurisdiction.
SB502 came Thursday and contains provisions that are critical to making SB501 work.
It contains a provision that would allow for a 12 percent facility-use fee that could be applied to ticket prices or sales in a stadium.
It also contained a proposal to allow for the creation of a district that could divert tax money to “medical tourism” projects, but Horsford said that provision would be removed.
The 12 percent facility fee is especially important to the project proposed near Mandalay Bay and could be amended into SB501.
Horsford said the impetus for the stadium measures was to boost the moribund Las Vegas economy by helping ensure financing for major construction projects.
“The bill before you I think is one of the more exciting opportunities we have as a legislature this session,” Horsford told the first committee that heard SB501, adding it would “create jobs in the short and long term that will help put our people back to work.”
Horsford said of SB501 that he wanted a bill that gave three developers vying to build a major project an equal shot to land the public financing they say it will take to close a deal.
Terry Care, a former senator and lobbyist for the stadium proposal near Mandalay Bay by Texas billionaire Chris Milam, said the bill was slow to develop because the projects considered in the bill weren’t fully conceived until after the session started.
“We needed the whole package” to craft the bill, Care said.
Others said the delay was to make sure the budget battle, which included contentious debate over cuts to education and social services, was over before tackling proposals that would divert public money to professional sports venues.
“The minute (Horsford) comes out and says ‘I want to redirect public funds,’ he has lost the moral high ground,” said one lobbyist who didn’t want to be quoted by name. “How do you explain that to voters?”
No matter what reason for the bills showing up late, it’s now up to legislative committees to process the complex language on short notice.
On Friday, Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, spent several hours leading her Assembly Committee on Taxation through SB501.
The lobbyist said it was a smart move by legislative leaders to be sure Kirkpatrick’s committee got the bill first.
Kirkpatrick is known for being diligent and likely to ensure that provisions that could cost taxpayers and embarrass the Legislature are scrubbed from the draft if SB501 emerges from her committee.
“If it ever gets to the Senate, Marilyn will have gutted it of everything terrible,” the lobbyist said.
Kirkpatrick, having arrived at the Legislature in 2005 when a last-minute green-building incentive proposal was approved and later was determined to put the state on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, took a cautious approach.
“Without direction and without clear intent, it could be a real cluster at the end,” Kirkpatrick said. “You either do it the right way, or I don’t care if it ever makes it.”
Despite the complexity of the bills and the short notice with which they arrived, there’s still a decent chance they could survive the legislative meat grinder.
With the economy struggling and jobs, particularly in the construction industry, hard to come by, politicians are grasping at any chance they can to deliver tangible public and private projects to voters.
“That is what gives this bill extra momentum,” Leslie said.
Also, the bill has backing from all of the developers looking for public support, UNLV and the city of Las Vegas.
Another well-connected lobbyist who didn’t want to be quoted criticizing lawmakers said never underestimate the power of the Legislature to act quickly on bills with powerful support.
“When a confluence of rich people get together and decide they want something, it goes,” the lobbyist said.
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at email@example.com or 702-477-3861.