CARSON CITY — It’s a simple rule of negotiation: Find something you can agree on, and build from there.
So when Assembly and Senate Democrats held a news conference Thursday — inviting Gov. Brian Sandoval’s chief of staff, Heidi Gansert — to announce a program to put out-of-work construction employees back on the job, they were playing to an issue nobody dislikes.
"There is no partisanship when it comes to creating jobs," said state Sen. Ruben Kihuen.
Even state Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, who had pointedly not been invited to the news conference or even been briefed about the plan before it was spilled to reporters, couldn’t disagree. "I think it’s a good idea," he said. "We’re looking forward to seeing their proposals. So long as they’re positive and don’t cost the state money and put people to work, we’re there."
Mission accomplished? Not really, but it’s a start.
The so-called Nevada Jobs First program wouldn’t actually divert any more money to building things; instead, it would expand an existing bidder preference for state projects to all public works jobs in Nevada. If a company hires locals for half its work force, registers in Nevada all vehicles used on the job, has half the design work done here, uses Nevada materials for a quarter of the job and maintains all payroll records in the state, it gets a 5 percent edge over bidders who don’t meet those criteria.
It’s hard to oppose, and Democrats are pledging to fast-track the bill through the process and get it to the governor in a month’s time. (Tellingly, Gansert didn’t commit Sandoval to signing the legislation, instead saying the administration is waiting to see "all bills" that come out of the Legislature.)
Even if the jobs idea sails out of the Legislature, there’s a long way to go in bridging the bigger and more important gap between Democrats and Republicans on the budget. The good news? It seems both sides concur there’s no way the state can live within its means.
Although the Economic Forum decreed in December the state had $5.3 billion to spend in the general fund over the next two years, Sandoval submitted a budget of $5.8 billion, using a combination of borrowing (against future insurance tax payments), shifting money from local governments to state schools, and using school district bond reserve money for operations.
Sandoval declined, several times, to acknowledge the extra $500 million was proof the budget couldn’t be balanced on state funds alone. "We wanted to make existing tax dollars work harder," he said. "These (ideas) wouldn’t be my first choice," the governor added. But, to him, they’re better than the choice he’s taken off the table: Taxes.
State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford decried Sandoval’s solution, claiming some of the ideas — especially the use of bond reserve funds — could result in a tax increase in Clark County. But he eagerly points out Democrats agree more money is needed.
"They’re just not dealing with the problem. And they’re not dealing with the problem in the short term or the long term," Horsford said. "Why can’t we deal with the structural problem that exists now?"
Doing that would require starting over with just $5.3 billion in income; a requirement to spend $450 million more on Medicaid cases than during the last biennium; paying back (maybe with interest) a federal loan for unemployment insurance, and making up for money school districts lost because property taxes are lagging. Oh, and there’s no federal stimulus money this time around, either.
Sandoval has made his choice, and it’s clear the Democrats don’t agree. There’s 115 days for negotiators to get from the easy stuff (more Nevada jobs!) to the tough stuff.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist, and author of the daily blog SlashPolitics.com. His column runs Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 387-5276 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.