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August 1, 2015

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Democrats play ball on reforms, in return for leeway on taxes

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John Oceguera

Sun Coverage

Legislative Democrats have spent the first month of the session trotting out one reform proposal after another. They want to crack down on consultant contracts, shine a light on how nonprofit groups spend government money, create a forced savings account for education and change the way governors create the state budget.

They also are taking on issues that could cut at the heart of some of their constituencies: ending teacher tenure and cutting retirement benefits for state employees, for example.

Although work has begun in earnest on those topics — a number of committee hearings have been held on more than a dozen bills — Democratic leaders are holding back on the elephant in the room — taxes.

First they need to build their case.

Democrats’ overall message with these bills: We will cut spending and put state government on a more efficient footing for when the economy improves.

Their hope: Please remember this when it comes time to talk about raising taxes.

“That’s what we actually have to do,” Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, said. “The public is demanding that we look at government spending, that we eliminate waste, be more accountable. And then, I think when we do those things, if there’s a need for revenue, they will say OK.”

Indeed, that’s the message that business groups representing those who would have to pay a tax increase have been pushing: dramatically change the way you spend and we might be willing to pay more.

Although Democrats are pushing some reforms that mirror what those groups have been calling for, Gov. Brian Sandoval clearly doesn’t see the debate along the same terms.

His view: The reforms are needed. Period. Don’t talk to me about taxes.

Further complicating the effort by Democrats is the fact it isn’t just Republican-leaning business groups trying to drive the debate on spending reform and taxes. Conservative activist groups, including Americans for Prosperity and the Keystone Corp., are pushing Republican lawmakers to refuse consideration of a tax increase.

Sandoval’s senior adviser likes to point out that the Democrats seem to be “following the road map” laid out by the governor in his State of the State address.

Indeed, both sides are talking about the same topics and in many cases their specific proposals mirror each other. Both sides are talking education reform, economic development and government accountability.

Both Democratic leaders and Sandoval want performance-based budgeting (their two bills are expected to look almost identical). Both sides agree on dramatically changing the way schoolteachers are evaluated. Both sides like rainy day funds.

“We’re pleased their announcements mirror the agenda the governor talked about in his State of the State,” adviser Dale Erquiaga said. “We are close enough in a number of areas that compromise is definitely possible.”

But in the view of many Republicans, the Democrats’ proposals don’t go far enough.

They don’t touch collective bargaining rights for local government employees. They aren’t strong enough on ending teacher tenure; Sandoval wants teachers to work year-to-year on annual contracts that aren’t guaranteed to be renewed.

And they don’t go into school vouchers or open enrollment, which would allow students to go to any school in the district but would be eligible for transportation only in their zone.

“They are trying to one-up the governor and say, ‘We have a better plan,’ ” Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, said. “We haven’t seen all the details of their plan, but obviously the governor’s plan will be the one we’ll support.”

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