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Heartbreaking realities brought to forefront of budget debate

The stories are enough to break your heart.

The college student who gets by on one meal a day, because his mother is disabled and his father unemployed. The teacher who has to tape up old books to keep them from falling apart, her students sitting in cracked chairs. A classroom filled with 50 kindergartners, the teacher struggling for control. Grandparents eating bananas for dinner so kids in their care can eat real meals.

Nevada legislators heard all those stories and more on Saturday, from scores of teachers, union members, social workers and senior citizen advocates. The crowd filled three rooms in the Grant Sawyer Building downtown, and even more gathered in Northern Nevada.

And their stories were heartbreaking.

“Please do not neglect the ones who are the most neglected,” pleaded Clo Banks of the Silver Haired Legislative Forum.

Many of those testifying called for new taxes, from mining to gambling to personal income to business.

In fact, that was just the point. Liberal groups encouraged people to come to the town hall-style hearing and, in three-minute doses, tell the Legislature how Gov. Brian Sandoval’s $5.8 billion general fund budget was going to affect them.

The bottom line: The cuts will be devastating, to students, to teachers, to public employees, to people who rely on the government for help.

The intended audience wasn’t just lawmakers, many of whom have declared they won’t consider taxes. It was also the public, which just elected a governor (by a very wide margin) who repeatedly pledged to stand against taxes.

If the stories were sorrowful, state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford was resolute.

“I know that the level of cuts proposed by Governor Sandoval will not stand,” said Horsford in the hallway, as the stories continued to unfold inside. “I will not process that [budget] out of the Senate Finance Committee.”

So, what will Horsford do instead? He had no specific plan, only a pledge to work with other people to find a better budget than the one the governor proposed.

This, like the town hall, is a textbook tactic: As soon as you toss an idea on the table, your opponents rip it to shreds. (Just ask Sandoval.) The longer the Democrats take to reveal their plan, the less time Republicans have to criticize it.

But the old playbook may not apply to the new game, especially since the other team’s defense seems solid. Democrats know they don’t have the votes to raise taxes now, especially in the state Senate.

Freshman Sen. Michael Roberson said he was moved by the stories he heard Saturday, especially since his wife is a teacher. But he said his emotions wouldn’t sway him to break his campaign trail pledges against raising taxes.

“I don’t take this stuff lightly,” he said, adding the hearings were “choreographed” by Democratic leaders. Absent from the town hall, Roberson said, were unemployed workers, or struggling small business owners, who have desperate stories of their own.

“I think it’s a good strategy from their perspective,” Roberson said. “But it’s simply not going to happen. There will not be a tax increase.”

He said at least eight of his fellow Republican caucus members agree.

If that holds until May, then Democrats who say they can’t live with Sandoval’s budget will find themselves stymied. It’s hard to forge a compromise when there’s virtually no money to be had (even a $1 billion tax increase would only take state spending to where it was two years ago).

Caught in the middle: Hundreds of people with stories sad enough to break your heart.

 

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. He can be reached at 592-6058 or at ssebelius@reviewjournal.com. 

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