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CARSON CITY — Clark County Democrats now chair eight of the state Senate’s nine committees, Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford of Las Vegas announced Thursday.

And Horsford himself is co-chairing the ninth committee — Finance — with Sen. Bernice Mathews of Reno, the only chair from Northern Nevada.

That’s a big change from the 2007 legislative session, when Northern and rural Nevada Republicans led six of the nine committees.

The Democrats took control of the upper house after the Nov. 4 election of Allison Copening and Shirley Breeden, who beat Republicans Bob Beers and Joe Heck. It’s the first time they have controlled the Senate since 1991.

Despite Southern Nevada’s new dominance of the Senate and his party’s 12-9 control of the upper house, Horsford stressed at the beginning of an hour-long news conference held to announce his appointments Thursday that there will be no north-south split during the 2009 Legislature.

"We must end any perception, real or perceived, that there is a north-south split on issues," said the 35-year-old. "We are one Nevada, one state. We are going to have a tough session. Governing Nevada is about working together."

He later complimented Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, for his work in leading the Senate. Raggio, 82, had been majority leader for 10 different Senate sessions.

"He cares as much about the whole state as I do," Horsford said. "He has worked for the good of the state as a whole. Northern Nevada people, rural Nevada people face the same problems as people in Southern Nevada."

Horsford noted he was born and reared in Las Vegas, graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno and for two years in the 1990s worked for Independence Mining in Elko.

Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, was disappointed that he was not named chairman of the Finance Committee.

Coffin has served 18 years on the committee and as the senior Democrat was in line for the appointment. Horsford instead named him chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee.

"I am curious why we are sharing power with Washoe County," Coffin said after Mathews’ appointment was announced. "I am surprised Clark County does not control the committee."

Mathews could not be reached for comment.

Horsford said Mathews will be in charge of day-to-day operations of the Finance Committee, while he will be responsible for policy and other decisions.

"Senator Mathews brings a unique perspective," Horsford said. "She is our only (Democratic) Northern Nevada member."

He said Coffin will remain a member of Finance.

During a 75th birthday party for Mathews in Reno on Wednesday, Raggio and Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, urged Horsford to name Mathews to lead the Finance Committee, considered the most plum committee assignment.

Their help could be essential during the session because Democrats would need votes from two Republicans to override any veto by Gov. Jim Gibbons.

Gibbons said again Monday that he would veto any bill to increase taxes unless the tax has the approval of the public or the affected industry.

But the governor noted the legislative Democrats could pass any tax bill over his veto with support from two Republican senators. It takes at least a two-thirds vote of each house to override a governor’s veto.

Democrats already have a veto-proof majority in the Assembly where they have a 28-14 lead. Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley of Las Vegas will name her committee leaders next week.

Also named as chairs of Senate committees were Terry Care, Judiciary; Mike Schneider, Transportation, Energy and Infrastructure; Maggie Carlton, Commerce and Labor; John Lee, Government Affairs; Valerie Wiener, Health and Education; Joyce Woodhouse, Legislative Operations and Election; and David Parks, Natural Resources.

Gibbons announced Monday that the state is in even more dire straits than thought just last week. He said he and lawmakers must cut spending by $300 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30, and the next two-year budget will be $1.5 billion short because of declining tax revenue.

Horsford gave no indication Thursday that Democrats will call for tax increases in 2009.

He said legislators must first review the state budget, agree on where they can make reductions and then explain to the public the "consequences of 25 percent or greater cuts."

"There may be areas we can cut or even eliminate," he said. "These are difficult economic times. Every family in Nevada is figuring out how to balance its budget. State government has to do the same."

Political analysts said Thursday there really haven’t been a lot of north-south issues in the Legislature and none probably will crop up in 2009 because legislators will be cutting, not increasing the size of government.

"There are fewer north-south issues than people think," said Eric Herzik, a UNR political science professor. "But they make good campaign issues. ‘Raggio, the defender of the North.’ "

Herzik said education funding is based on formulas that have nothing to do with regions of the state.

Where Northern Nevada eventually could lose is in transportation spending, Herzik said.

But transportation spending is not directly controlled by the Legislature. A seven-member state Transportation Board, chaired by Gibbons, determines how the state Department of Transportation spends its money. Just three of the seven board members are Clark County residents.

During the past five years, 53 percent of the Transportation Department’s spending has been in Clark County, home of more than 70 percent of the state population.

Scott Magruder, spokesman for the department, said more maintenance is required on Northern Nevada roads because of inclement winter weather.

David Damore, a UNR political science professor, expects that Horsford will be challenged by Raggio.

"If they want to bypass Gibbons, they need two Republicans to play nice with," Damore said. "It forces them (Democrats) to moderate their positions."

More than half of the legislators have come from Clark County since the 1973 session. Now 14 of the 21 senators and 29 of the 42 Assembly members are Clark County residents.

The main reason Clark County has not dominated the Legislature is because of the "lack of cohesion" in the Southern Nevada delegation, Herzik said.

"Tell me that Barbara Buckley (Democrat) and Barbara Cegavske (Republican) are two peas in the pod? This notion that there is one south is ridiculous."

Newly elected Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., agreed that there has not been a lot of regionalism in the Legislature.

Until her congressional victory, Titus had been a state senator for 20 years, most often as the minority leader. She fought, in particular, for the fair distribution of tax revenue between north and south, and equity in pay for college professors in both ends of the state.

"I don’t think we are entirely there yet," said Titus about pay equity, "but now the worry is about saving positions. The issue now is the economy."

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

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