CARSON CITY — Private investors could wind up spending $400 million to build a highway bypass around Boulder City thanks to some political hardball from a mild-mannered state senator.
Early Tuesday, Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, used a bill that would aid several projects in Northern Nevada to force a third Assembly vote on Senate Bill 506, which contains provisions allowing private developers to help build a toll road around Boulder City.
Hardy wants a toll road to relieve traffic from the O’Callaghan-Tillman Bridge over the Colorado River downstream from Hoover Dam.
Hardy had been advocating for a toll road for years, and earlier this session, he secured support from Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and Democratic leaders.
When it appeared late Monday that some Assembly Democrats were looking for a way to avoid voting for the measure, Hardy refused to sign off on a conference committee report needed to finalize the other bill, Assembly Bill 376, forcing a third, and ultimately successful, vote on the toll road bill.
“He made it clear to me, ‘I’m not signing that conference report until 506 passes again,’ ” said Greg Ferraro, a prominent lobbyist who helped Democratic leaders and Sandoval administration staffers round up votes.
Ferraro said Hardy, a physician by trade, showed everyone involved in the frantic, late-night vote-counting effort that he is also a tough politician.
“Doc Hardy is typically a pretty jovial fellow, but he was pretty serious,” Ferraro said.
SB506 lifts from state law a provision that prohibits toll roads. It allows the development of a demonstration project around Boulder City.
The measure also sets guidelines that allow for the use of federal and private money for the project and includes safeguards so private investors, not state taxpayers, assume the risk.
Hardy said the bill will not only help reduce traffic congestion in Boulder City, but it also could create thousands of jobs building the road and ease travel between Phoenix and Las Vegas.
“I started this whole process saying ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ and I have a jobs bill that is huge,” Hardy said.
The proposal was originally contained in Senate Bill 214 but ran into opposition from unions and died in an Assembly committee.
But on May 26, an opportunity to revive the measure came up when the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the state could not use $62 million contained in Sandoval’s budget. The ruling, by Sandoval’s interpretation, also put at risk another $600 million, meaning he would have to redo the budget and secure votes from Republican and Democratic legislators.
That is when Hardy, who pushed toll road bills since 2003, secured an agreement from Sandoval and Democrats to pair his idea with a school construction funding proposal backed by Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks. Sandoval earlier had vetoed Smith’s proposal which was in Assembly Bill 183, but agreed to revive it after the budget was patched back together.
“(Sandoval) had to know where everybody stood that day,” Hardy said of the scramble after the court decision.
Linking proposals backed by key Republicans and Democrats seemed like a solution that could help deliver votes from both sides of the aisle.
A third provision for local improvement districts was also included.
“The deal was we were going to have these deals linked, and it was going to be voted on,” Hardy said.
For good measure, Hardy said he also reached out to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to tell union interests he supported the concept.
Hardy said state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, did his part by helping get Democratic support so the bill could clear the Senate by a 21-0 vote.
But it ran into problems in the Assembly. Democrats on a conference committee for AB376, which had provisions to help finance baseball, bowling and potential Olympic facilities in Northern Nevada, quietly attached Smith’s school construction language to the bill.
That meant when SB506 hit the floor, Democrats could vote to kill it and still get the school construction provision by approving AB376. Assembly conference committee members Richard Daly, D-Sparks, and David Bobzien, D-Reno, said they wanted another vehicle for the school bond reserve provisions in case SB506 failed, not an opportunity to kill the toll road provisions.
“That would make a better story, but in my world, that was never it,” Bobzien said.
Hardy said he noticed the school bond lifeboat when a conference committee report landed on his desk around 11:30 p.m. Monday.
“Then I thought, ‘Uh-oh, somebody didn’t get the message these are three jobs bills linked together,’ ” Hardy said.
Shortly thereafter the Assembly cast the first of three votes on SB506, and it failed 24-18. It needed 26 votes to meet the required two-thirds vote. Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, called for a reconsideration, and it did even worse, failing 21-21.
That prompted a recess and intense meetings among Hardy, Horsford, Sandoval officials Dale Erquiaga and Heidi Gansert, and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas.
“Obviously we were concerned,” said Erquiaga, who said he had been watching the Assembly floor session on television with Sandoval when the votes occurred. “(Sandoval) had made a commitment to Senator Hardy and Mrs. Smith that we would help see their measures through.”
Fortunately for Hardy, he was a member of the conference committee on AB376, meaning for the bill to advance, he had to sign off on amendments.
Backed by Sandoval and Democratic leaders, Hardy refused to sign until the Assembly took a third vote on SB506.
“I said ‘Speaker, if that vote passes I will sign that conference report,’ ” Hardy said.
Erquiaga, Gansert and Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, helped round up votes in time for a third vote that passed 29-13.
“There was no partisan questioning, no bickering,” Erquiaga said. “We all went out onto the floor to find votes.”
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@
reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.