Las Vegas Sun

May 26, 2015

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Democrats’ schism aggravates budget turmoil; Republicans remain relaxed

Kelvin Atkinson

Kelvin Atkinson

Brian Sandoval

Brian Sandoval

Sun archives

CARSON CITY — Even to a casual observer it would have been obvious — just from pure body language, that the Republicans came out ahead in the flurry of last-minute budget negotiations Tuesday morning.

Gov. Brian Sandoval left a meeting with legislative Republicans loose and relaxed, chatting with reporters about his optimism that his budget will make it through the Legislature.

The Republican lawmakers in the meeting restated their support for the governor’s budget and rolled their eyes at the difficulties Democrats were having. “It’s easy being in the minority,” one Republican senator quipped.

The Democrats, meanwhile, scattered through the building in turmoil. Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, in tears, complained to a lobbyist outside the building that he couldn’t support what his leadership was asking him to.

“They can’t tell me to vote for something I don’t like and then tell me I have five minutes to make up my mind,” Atkinson said after Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, told his caucus of the cuts they would have to accept as part of a deal he was working out with Republicans.

The meeting came just 12 hours after Oceguera broke the news to his caucus that the ambitious tax plan he had crafted with Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, was dead. That plan, which was supposed to not only save the state from the deep cuts to education and social services proposed by Sandoval but provide a more stable revenue footing, had kept alive the hopes of the Democratic caucuses.

They spent hours hearing testimony on plans to create a services tax and a margin tax on business revenue. They developed arguments for the funding they believe is needed to prevent painful cuts. And they promised constituents that they were doing all they could to pass an alternative to Sandoval’s budget.

But Tuesday morning, they were asked to go into a joint money committee meeting and vote for cuts, to get lawmakers a budget without the tax increases. They were crestfallen.

“They shot too high,” one observer said of Democratic leaders. “I don’t know how they bring their caucus back down now.”

The fallout included a near meltdown by the Assembly Democrats. Ten of the 26 are freshmen, who are experiencing for the first time the brutality of budget negotiations during which idealism often falls prey to reality.

Several, along with some veteran lawmakers including Atkinson, revolted.

Atkinson, a key vote on the money committee needed for Democrats to make the cuts they had planned Tuesday morning, outright refused to back the deal.

Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, an ambitious freshman, worked with others to rally a bloc of freshmen for a last-ditch effort to come up with a deal where the leadership had failed.

“Every session there’s been a big blowup,” Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said. “The difference this session is you have so many freshmen that they can form a more powerful bloc.”

The division in the Assembly caucus was foreshadowed earlier in the session when nine Democrats voted against Oceguera’s signature education reform bill.

The rift in the Democratic caucus forced a daylong postponement of the joint money committee meeting.

Oceguera and other leaders put a hold on budget negotiations as well, hoping to give members time to digest the death of the tax proposal and allow cooler heads to prevail.

“Everyone needs to take a deep breath,” Speaker Pro Tem Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said. “We went for a couple walks. We just have to keep talking. People are tired, frustrated. We all want to save the state. It’s really just about talking to people.”

Veteran lobbyist Greg Ferraro characterized the rift as typical of end-of-session budget negotiations.

“With 13 days to go, sometimes things have to fall apart before they can move forward,” he said.

By the end of the day, with emotions calmed, Democrats rescheduled their money committee meeting, plowing forward with the cuts.

But as Democrats try to piece themselves back together and negotiate again with Republicans, Sandoval calmly waits.

His senior staff is reworking the $6.3 billion budget, perhaps piecing together a small amount of additional revenue and looking for ways to address the top concerns of their opponents.

“We are still making adjustments within the budget,” Sandoval’s Chief of Staff Heidi Gansert said.

And the closer Democrats get to a Saturday deadline to forge agreement on an alternative to Sandoval’s budget, the less their chances of success.

“They have a balanced budget that they can adopt right now,” Sandoval reminded reporters. “I am optimistic. That’s what I’ve been saying from the first day.”

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