Tell me it’s over

With a little luck, when you read this the Legislature will no longer be in session.

The mere possibility that lawmakers could adjourn before their constitutionally mandated deadline — 1 a.m. today — was something of a political miracle.

And as a pragmatist who has seen the Legislature wrap up on time only once, I had to bet the over. But it looks as though I’ve lost a 30-year-old bottle of scotch to CityLife Editor Steve Sebelius.

So this is a bit of a mea culpa column (I think). Not only was I on the wrong side of a legislative prediction, I miscalculated the rebound by Gov. Jim Gibbons.

His first six months as chief executive have featured enough disastrous missteps and disingenuous moves to sink an entire four-year term. Yet by setting an incredibly low bar and counting on lawmakers to deliver an even more lackluster performance, the Gibbons team can claim political victories on many fronts.

The governor held the line on taxes, got one-fifth of the way toward solving our highway construction needs and kept lawmakers in line to finish on time. While his veto threat over minuscule budget items appeared to fit the paranoid megalomania we’ve already seen from Gibbons, it actually showcased the power of the executive branch against a very part-time Legislature.

In hindsight, had former Gov. Kenny Guinn put down his foot early and often in support of his 2003 tax proposal, he may have been able to avoid the constitutional crisis that produced weeks of anguish. And had Guinn been as forceful in protecting his Millennium Scholarship program as he was for his tax rebate in 2005, the Assembly and Senate might have gotten out early that session.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, may wield immense power in the Legislative Building, but thanks to the makeup of their respective houses, they must defer to the governor on critical matters.

Still, all three leaders can claim successes.

Buckley earned a hard-fought victory to tighten her payday loan legislation from last session and got full-day kindergarten for a few more public schools.

Raggio bolstered higher education funding, helped win support for empowerment schools and (possibly) got Nevada on the way to major judicial reform. The jury was still out on his proposal calling for the appointment of Nevada judges.

But while there may have been individual winners this session, the Legislature as a whole shouldn’t be celebrating.

On the issue of highway funding, only the Legislature could take bows for a 20 percent solution. But by coming up with only $1 billion for a hulking $5 billion, eight-year project funding shortfall, that’s precisely what lawmakers have done.

When the 2009 session convenes, the state may still be at least $5 billion short to fund major highway improvements in Las Vegas and Reno. Maybe voters will approve higher taxes to pay for roads by then, but at what cost? Will a competing school bond issue fail so we have an easier commute?

Schools fared worse than highways — they didn’t even get one-tenth of the way to full funding. New spending for K-12 programs rang in at $63 million — a far cry from $1 billion requested by district superintendents and state education officials. After this session, Nevada will still be dead last nationally in per-pupil funding. The Clark County School District will have hundreds of vacant teaching positions.

The green construction bill boondoggle will still end up costing local governments and schools hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade. Lawmakers tried to clean up the 2005 legislation that offered huge property and sales tax reductions for energy-efficient buildings, but ended up preserving lucrative breaks for MGM Mirage, The Venetian and Boyd Gaming. The gamers would have been idiots not to drive their trucks through that hole — Las Vegas Sands executive Bill Weidner said he became an environmentalist only when he saw what the green break could mean to the Palazzo project’s bottom line.

Of course, those are only the three biggest issues lawmakers faced this session. Health care, child welfare and crime went barely unnoticed. Even everyone’s favorite crisis — meth addiction — almost got completely shut out.

A compromise on a methamphetamine enforcement bill was reached last week as television stations statewide aired the documentary “Crystal Darkness.” Who knows what might have happened without that pressure?

The next generation of lawmakers might wonder why their 2007 peers did nothing about the billions of dollars in unfunded public employee retirement benefits. And ethics reform was watered down to make it practically meaningless. Sure, lawmakers passed a few things, but none of them could be considered sweeping. (The appointment of judges, if it passed, would be an exception.)

Overall, this was another status quo session. The only big change (I think) was adjourning on time.

Erin Neff’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com.

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