Democratic leaders held town hall meetings before the Nevada Legislature began and several times during the 120-day session. The idea was to bring public pressure to bear on Gov. Brian Sandoval and Republicans backing his pledge not to raise taxes.
Education leaders, union members, social services advocates and regular people testified about the potential damage of deep budget cuts as initially proposed to drop spending to 2007 levels.
State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, also used public meetings to tout a $1.2 billion tax plan that would lift 2009 tax sunsets and impose two new levies, a margin tax on businesses and a sales tax on services.
The public pressure did little to sway Republicans or shift the debate.
University and community college students organized to rail against proposed budget cuts. They organized buses to bring students to Carson City from Clark County, including from hard-hit University of Nevada, Las Vegas and College of Southern Nevada.
In late March, more than 1,000 students, teachers and parents descended on the Legislative Building. They protested outside and crowded hallways as lawmakers held hearings on proposed cuts to education. Feelings ran high amid the threat of thousands of layoffs and closing campuses, something that now will not come to pass.
In mid-May, students and other activists set up a tent city on the lawn outside the Legislative Building for three days. They dubbed it "Sandoville." Some Democratic lawmakers joined the three dozen tent sitters for a campout in freezing weather for one night, including Horsford and state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, chairwoman of the Senate Revenue Committee and one of the more liberal lawmakers.
The students also met with Republican lawmakers. They chatted for more than half an hour during one impromptu session on the floor in the hallway outside the office of state Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas. The students praised the Republicans for listening to them, but in the end several of those same GOP lawmakers, including Cegavske, voted against the budget deal, saying they couldn’t break their promise not to raise or extend taxes in economic hard times.
FLOOR BUDGET SESSIONS
Democratic leaders of both the Assembly and state Senate pulled an unusual legislative stunt that seemed to have backfired. The houses each held "committee of the whole" sessions to vote on spending plans. This was meant to force Republicans to show the public how deeply they were willing to cut education, social services and other programs.
The votes landed along party lines as expected, and the meetings ended in nasty partisan tirades and bitter feelings that lingered.
Ultimately, the hearings pushed members of both parties into far corners — Republicans against any taxes and Democrats against any major budget cuts. And that’s where the two sides stayed, at a standoff that could have thrown the session into overtime.
State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, a relative moderate, was seen as a potential swing vote for the 2009 tax extensions. But he said the committee of the whole demonstration hardened him against taxes.
"They backed us into a corner," Kieckhefer said. "And it was a lot better than dancing in the middle of the dance floor."
In the end, however, Kieckhefer turned out to be one of the swing votes after Sandoval himself switched his position because a Nevada Supreme Court decision blew a $657 million hole in his budget. Kieckhefer was one of four state Senate Republicans who sided with the governor and voted for the budget deal, which included lifting the 2009 tax sunsets. As a result, he got a steady stream of hate email.
"Some of the haters are some of the same people who liked me two weeks ago," he said, shaking his head.
On May 2 — the same day the Nevada Supreme Court held oral arguments in the Clark County water fund case — the Economic Forum met. The group of five independent business leaders formally raised the estimated revenue from tax and fee collections in the 2011-2013 biennium.
As a result of the $5.5 billion revenue forecast, Sandoval revised his budget and added more money to education: $240 million to K-12 and $20 million to the higher education system.
"The governor heard what was being said in this (Legislative) Building and he added money where people wanted it," said Dale Erquiaga, the governor’s top adviser.
Once he added it, the governor would have had a politically tough time taking it back after the state Supreme Court blew a hole in his budget.
The forecast at the time didn’t include extending the 2009 taxes, which the budget deal did to add another $620 million.
SANDOVAL GOES ON TV
The governor’s State of the State address after he took office in January set the stage for his budget priorities and no-tax-hike stance. But he reached out to Nevadans again in a public TV address from the Governor’s Mansion, the day after the higher Economic Forum revenue projections.
He wanted to highlight two things: more money for education and signs Nevada’s economy was picking up after three years of recession.
"The Legislature had spent 90 days criticizing the governor’s budget and in some cases the governor himself," Erquiaga said. "This was his way to address the Nevada family one more time. He was in his own home, and he knew he was talking to people in their homes."
DEMOCRATS’ WHITE FLAG
In the days before the May 26 state Supreme Court decision, Democrats gave up on passing new taxes.
On May 24, the money committees cut more than $260 million from spending plans that the Democratic majority had already approved over GOP objections.
Debbie Smith, chairwoman of Assembly Ways and Means, said it was the toughest day of the session for her. It brought her to tears and it caused a meltdown among Democrats, who balked at making the cuts.
"I feel sad and embarrassed," said Smith, D-Sparks, during the meeting.
Oceguera was still negotiating with Assembly Republicans to trade reforms for an extension of the 2009 tax package. It looked unlikely but possible in the lower house and all but impossible in the state Senate.
"I didn’t give up," Oceguera said.
Still, dissension in the Democratic ranks delayed approval of the cuts for eight hours.
Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, was said to be leading a freshman revolt.
Flores said that was an exaggeration and she simply wanted to know what they were cutting before voting yes.
"We were being asked to make a decision very quickly," said Flores, one of 21 freshmen in the 63-member Legislature.
Smith agreed leaders had to explain the facts to new lawmakers.
"We had to talk to people and say, ‘OK, if you want to stay here all summer and have a tax battle we can,’ " Smith said. "It’s like being in a family. You don’t get along all the time in your family, and you have to work it out."
Las Vegas Review-Journal