Monday, Feb. 5, 2001 | 11:33 a.m.
CARSON CITY -- After a two-week warmup of committee meetings, the Nevada Legislature opens today faced with a growing energy crisis and the possibility of a slowdown in the economy.
The Senate and the Assembly were to be gaveled to order at noon to start the 120-day session that will tackle such issues as taxes, reapportionment, changes in the election laws and whether to allow widespread distribution of marijuana for medical purposes.
The opening day is devoted to largely administrative and ceremonial matters. The newly elected legislators will take the oath of office. Leadership in the Senate and Assembly, decided in caucuses after the elections, will be officially elected.
Scores of bills are waiting to be introduced, but traditionally the first measure to pass is a Senate bill calling for $10 million to begin paying the cost of the session. State officials estimate the session will cost about $12 million to $13 million.
Teachers tax initiative
Secretary of State Dean Heller, who presides at the opening of the Assembly until Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, is elected speaker, will deliver to the Legislature the initiative tax petition of Nevada's schoolteachers union seeking to impose a 4 percent tax on business profits to support education.
The Legislature will have 40 days to act. If it rejects the plan or changes it, than the issue will go to the voters in 2002.
The Nevada Supreme Court will hold a hearing on Wednesday on a petition by a group of businesses to declare the initiative a violation of the state Constitution, claiming, among other things, it amounts to a personal income tax.
Heller also will present the Legislature with bills vetoed by Gov. Kenny Guinn after the 1999 session closed. Lawmakers will then set a time to consider whether to override the vetoes.
Two hours before the session opens, Guinn will hold a news briefing about his trip to Portland, Ore., to meet with other Western governors about the growing electricity and natural gas problems.
Guinn's press secretary Jack Finn said the governor would not have any special message to the Legislature yet on what steps the state should follow. He said Guinn wants to make sure that everybody is marching in the same direction on the issue.
Sierra Pacific Resources Inc., the parent of Nevada Power Co. of Las Vegas, has asked for a $300 million rate increase, in addition to the monthly power rate adjustments. The request has sparked a major controversy.
Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, said his Commerce and Labor Committee will begin hearings Tuesday to unravel where Nevada is and what should be done to avoid the "mess in California."
Deregulation has been blamed for soaring prices and a power shortage in California.
Townsend said he wants an explanation of Nevada Power's $300 million request on Wednesday. On Thursday he will call the independent power producers to testify how Nevada can speed up the process to allow construction of new generating plants.
"We are not going to lower environmental standards," said Townsend, who was one of the main architects of electric deregulation legislation that has yet to go into effect in Nevada. "That is not acceptable."
But Townsend said some laws might be changed to take some of the red tape out of the process.
The rising energy crisis, Townsend, said "terrifies me." It presents a "double whammy" for Nevada. As California pays increased prices for its electricity, that is going to drive the price that Nevadans will have to pay.
In addition, the higher rates paid by Californians mean they will have less "disposable income" to come to Nevada to gamble. Since California is a key source of Nevada's tourist trade, this could hurt the gaming industry and result in lower tax revenues for the state.
Falling tax revenue
Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, has already sounded a note of caution. Taxes from the gaming industry are not living up to predictions over the past several months.
If the trend continues, Raggio said, the Legislature may have to cut $30 million from the estimated $300 million spending plan Guinn has presented for the rest of this fiscal year.
However, state gaming officials have told lawmakers they think the casinos may be rebounding somewhat from a downturn. Gaming taxes account for more than 39 percent of the state's general fund revenue.
After Guinn delivered his "State of the State" message on Jan. 22, the Senate Finance Committee and the Assembly Ways and Means Committee began hearing details of the governor's $3.74 billion biennial budget.
Heller returned Sunday from the national convention of secretaries of state in Washington, D.C., where the main topic centered on curing the ills of the last election.
Heller said he is going to try for a third time to rewrite the state's election laws. One change he is advocating is a statewide voter registration system, instead of having the counties handle the job.
It would cost $1.5 million to $2 million and is not included in Guinn's budget. Heller said he met with Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who supports a law to allow a person to register up to the day of election. Current state law requires voter registration 30 days in advance of the election.
Heller said Reid's proposal would dovetail with his plan for a statewide registration.
In addition, Heller is suggesting that the punch card voting machines in eight counties in Nevada be eliminated. In Florida, there were major problems with unpunched ballots in the presidential campaign.
He estimates upgrading the machines would cost $400,000. The estimate does not include Clark County, which uses the punch card system in absentee balloting. He wants to install optical scanners in place of the punch card machines.
The Legislature also will decide how far it wants to go in the distribution of marijuana for medical purposes. Voters in 1998 and 2000 overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to permit the use of the drug to treat certain ills.
A committee of physicians, pharmacists and other health professionals has recommended the drug be distributed only by doctors who are involved in experiments approved by the federal government.
These experiments would test the claims of those who say marijuana has healing or pain reducing powers.
But backers of the constitutional amendment say this is too restrictive, and there should be liberal distribution.
In California, the federal government has stepped in to try to stop doctors from prescribing the drug.
In mid-March or early April, the Census Bureau should release its breakdown of Nevada's population, allowing the Legislature to start reapportionment.
Because of the increase in population in Southern Nevada, the state will get a third congressional seat, and legislators must redraw those congressional boundaries.
Lawmakers also must reshape the Legislature, the state Board of Education and the University and Community College System of Nevada Regents to give Clark County additional power.