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September 1, 2015

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A steep climb for Nevadans

Democratic leaders say cuts in Sandoval’s budget are too much, but can they convince five Republicans their plan, although not yet released, is better?

Budget cuts

KSNV coverage of Gov. Brian Sandoval's proposed state budget, Jan. 25, 2011.

Sandoval's State of the State

Gov. Brian Sandoval, center, leads a standing ovation for a pair of Nevada servicemen who were decorated for their actions in Afghanistan, while making his first State of the State address before a joint session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Jan. 24, 2011. Lt. Col Tony Millican, who is stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, received the Bronze Star and the Air Force's Lance P. Sijan Award for heroism. Spl. Ernesto Padilla, of the Nevada National Guard received the Purple Heart for wounds he suffered from a road side blast that tore his vehicle in half. Launch slideshow »

Sun Coverage

Steven Horsford

Steven Horsford

John Oceguera

John Oceguera

During his campaign for governor, Brian Sandoval promised to craft a budget that preserved essential state functions in the face of a $2 billion deficit without raising taxes.

Within hours of Sandoval delivering a plan to do that, Democrats began the race to convince the public, business leaders and, most importantly, at least five Republican lawmakers that Sandoval failed on his promise.

Indeed, several key Republicans said during the campaign that their position on a tax increase hinged on whether Sandoval could, unlike his predecessor, produce a budget that won’t cripple the state.

Democrats must settle on a strategy for winning over these lawmakers. And in the early days of a legislative session filled with freshmen lawmakers and young leaders, that strategy appears to be somewhat in disarray, with Senate and Assembly Democrats appearing to take different approaches.

“I don’t know what it is,” one Democrat with access to leadership discussions said of the strategy. “I don’t know that we even have one.”

A three-pronged strategy has begun to take shape, at least on the Senate side. Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, is expected to forcefully wield his power as leader and chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, looking for the priorities of individual lawmakers that he can use as leverage to gather votes.

Meanwhile, a new political team he is building will work on constituent pressure in swing districts represented by Republicans.

And Horsford will continue meeting with a group of business leaders, hoping to build a case that the success of their industries relies heavily on the strength of infrastructure, education and other services provided by state government.

“This budget does not position us for success,” Horsford said during a news conference Monday night.

To Democrats, the advantage is the fact that details of Sandoval’s plan are out. Instead of simply arguing that businesses can’t afford a tax increase, the administration must defend specific cuts, some of which are substantial.

For example, according to the governor’s budget director, Sandoval wants to cut K-12 schools by 9 percent and higher education by 17 percent.

Although Democrats spent their first morning with Sandoval’s proposed budget in hand loudly condemning cuts to education, borrowing from future streams and pilfering local revenue, they have yet to put forward an alternative.

Both Horsford and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, refused to say whether they would seek a tax increase to blunt the cuts they find unacceptable.

Oceguera said he has a four-part plan: Cut spending, reform the way government operates, focus on economic development and create a vision for the future.

But he declined to say whether a tax increase is included.

“The last step of that is to see where we’re at. If we’re at a place where we still need revenue, then we ought to look at it,” he said.

The two Democratic leaders are cultivating different opposition styles. In his response to Sandoval’s speech, Oceguera struck a tone of cooperation.

Horsford basically declared Sandoval’s budget dead on arrival, vowing not to process it through the Finance Committee if it includes such steep cuts to education.

Asked if he agreed with Horsford, Oceguera chuckled. “That was pretty strong,” he said.

Democrats also face a popular governor, whose election, some argue, was a clear message that voters expect state leaders to solve the budget problem without burdening businesses and residents with a tax increase.

That popularity could hold together the Republican minorities in the Senate and Assembly, both of which are large enough to block a tax increase if they remain united.

Reaction from Republicans was mixed.

Freshman Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, who some have said is enough of a moderate to be targeted by Democrats, said he is excited by Sandoval’s proposal.

“Some of the cuts that the Legislature is going to consider are difficult and some long overdue in terms of streamlining government,” he said. “I haven’t seen or heard anything that would cause me to rethink my support of the governor.”

Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, was a little more cautious.

He said he’s deeply concerned about the rural counties’ ability to take on the additional services Sandoval wants to push to their level. Sandoval’s higher education plan also provides dedicated funding for UNR and UNLV from county property tax revenue, but does nothing for the community colleges in Elko and Carson City.

“Will these cuts leave a functional budget? Yes, the jury is still out on that,” Goicoechea said.

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