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Finally, an honest Legislature

Desperation and stress have a remarkable way of stripping away pretense. In the worst of times, genuine sentiments come bursting through all the barriers and disguises. The tidal wave of truth is at once cleansing and destructive.

Last week’s exasperating, budget-balancing special session of the Legislature left no doubt about the true colors of most longtime lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike. In cutting some $300 million from the state spending plan that runs through June 2011 — but swiping and scrounging up enough money to spare more than $500 million worth of program expenditures from the ax — legislators made no attempt to hide their pent-up contempt for the battered private sector.

This recession has wiped out more than just jobs and businesses. It has claimed friendships, partnerships, marriages and families. It has crushed hope and tested faith.

But a majority of our legislators are sick of such whining. They’re done offering phony sympathy. Their empires won’t be downsized.

“You are absolutely wasting our time,” Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, growled during one hearing after business lobbyists testified that they wouldn’t support higher taxes because they’ve laid off enough workers already.

“The result when you don’t come to the table and work with us are the fees you are complaining about today. … You need to be at the table and explain how your industry can help us get to where we want this state to go,” he said.

Shut up and give us your money. We’ll get it, one way or another. Then we’ll take it from there.

“We need to put the state’s needs first,” said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas. If we have to kill two more private-sector jobs to save each government position, so be it.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, launched a rhetorical tirade against the gaming industry, the state’s largest employer and taxpayer, for refusing to cough up roughly $30 million in additional taxes following a fiscal year in which it lost nearly $7 billion and laid off more than 30,000 staff. Horsford’s failed demand would have put 1,000 more hotel-casino workers in the unemployment line.

Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, snarled that he would bring big businesses before committees during next year’s regular session, and they’d be made to pay up. “We’re going to have a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting then,” he said.

Our part-time elected representatives have gone native. We sent them to Carson City to oversee state government. Now they are state government. No disrespect to Patty Hearst, but we have a new signature case study for Stockholm syndrome.

The signals sent by the Legislature were unmistakable: This state can be great only with higher taxes, bigger government and better-paid public employees — even if we have to send the unemployment rate past 15 percent to get there. Massive tax increases that dwarf the record hikes of 2009 are the agenda for 2011.

Thank heavens for some honesty in campaigning. Recall that in 2008, as the recession worsened, Democratic candidates for the Legislature disingenuously declared they wouldn’t support tax increases. They made gains in both houses, and when they got to Carson City in 2009, they rallied behind $1 billion in tax hikes. Every single Democrat and half the Senate Republicans (who also campaigned against tax increases) voted for them.

Election filings are under way, and primary elections are three months away. There will be no doubt about the candidates’ intentions. Veterans of the ’09 session won’t be able to hide from their own records. Voters will go to the polls knowing every race (even Democratic primaries) is a referendum on major tax hikes — and further damage to the economy — in 2011.

Horsford and his charges can call it whatever they want — revenue reform, broadening the tax base, fee changes, tax restructuring — but their code has been cracked. Even if lawmakers make permanent the tax increases of 2009 (increases in the sales, payroll, business license and vehicle registration taxes scheduled to expire next year), they’ll likely pursue an additional $2 billion in new taxes on top of that. A job-killing gross receipts tax will be on the table, as will a corporate income tax. Unsustainable spending will be met with even more unsustainable spending.

Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, won’t be there. She announced Thursday that she won’t seek re-election. It will be up to someone else to lead the GOP minority in the lower house.

Whoever assumes that title could become the most powerful person in Carson City next year. The governor’s race is irrelevant to the budget because it takes a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the Assembly to pass tax increases; that same margin can override a gubernatorial veto. Although Democrats don’t enjoy a two-thirds majority in the Senate, Horsford will be able to make a deal with Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, RINO-Reno, as he did last year. Barring a conservative landslide in November’s election, Horsford should have the 14 votes he needs to raise taxes.

But if Republicans can pick up one seat in the Assembly and break up the Democrats’ two-thirds majority — and if the GOP caucus can withstand the unrelenting pressure of the tax-consuming class — tax hikes will hit a roadblock similar to the one built by the “Mean 15” in 2003. Gansert’s successor would hold all the cards.

The Legislature’s anti-business majority likes to argue that the state’s still-favorable tax climate hasn’t helped diversify the Nevada economy, that major employers won’t consider coming here if we don’t have well-funded, stable government services.

Taxes aren’t everything, true enough. But no business wants to enter a political climate as toxic and unstable as Nevada’s, where public employee unions carry the day and greedy, power-hungry politicians target short-term success and constantly re-evaluate whether you’re paying your “fair” share, never mind the abundance of tax revenue spread across the state.

The uncertainty of this recession is reason enough for industry to put off hiring or expanding, but the uncertainty of this year’s election and next year’s legislative session is far scarier.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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