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A win for Guinn


June 11 - 12, 2005

You cannot judge this year's Nevada Legislature only by its tattered cover.

If you did, you would have seen a Legislature that entered the year emotionally drained after impeaching state Controller Kathy Augustine for misusing state property in her 2002 re-election campaign.

And you would have seen lawmakers hopelessly deadlocked at the end of its 73rd session over the Millenium Scholarship program, forcing Tuesday's special session.

What you would have missed in between were scores of successful bills that addressed major policy areas such as property taxes, education, higher education, heath care, consumer protection, children's welfare, water and energy conservation and public safety. And most Nevadans are getting a tax rebate to boot.

"What I'm most proud of is the very large number of bills that represent good public policy," Assembly Majority Leader Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, said.

The general consensus among lawmakers and political observers is that Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn came out a big winner because most of his legislative agenda was approved, and only a handful of significant issues went unresolved.

Since Guinn is nearing the end of his second four-year term and cannot run again for re-election next year, this year's regular legislative session was his last while in office.

"Guinn did great," Eric Herzik, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said. "He started out slow by not taking a leadership role on the property tax issue. But at the end of the session he pulled back the Assembly, which had been playing hardball, by threatening them with vetoes.

"He brought the partisan sides together on the last day and got things done. He made very judicious use of his power and presence. This session he got everything he wanted."

Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, agreed.

"He was more effective this time than last time at setting his agenda," Townsend said of Guinn. "He had an effective campaign of letting the public know what he was doing."

You won't get an argument from Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate next year.

"The governor got the rebate in the form he wanted," Titus said. "He got $100 million for new educational programs. He got the Millenium Scholarship funded the way he wanted. So he will leave office with a bang."

Most lawmakers believe they got along better this year than during the bitter 2003 session, particularly in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

The 2003 Legislature was marked by partisan bloodshed -- and intervention by the Nevada Supreme Court -- when lawmakers passed a record $833 million tax hike. That was in response to increased demand for government services due to population growth -- at a time when Nevada was just climbing back from an economic slump caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The atmosphere this year was more conducive to bipartisan cooperation because the state enters the coming biennium with $2 billion in new state money, including a projected $600 million surplus from the past two years. That was due to an upturn in Nevada's economy and the broadened state tax base.

"Certainly in the Senate the working environment between both parties was better than I had ever seen," Townsend said. "That was attributable to the majority and minority leadership and how they communicated with each other. That set the tone for the other members. When you have a good tone, productivity goes up."

Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, listed the cooperation among Democrats and Republicans in the lower house as a major accomplishment. He, too, is a likely 2006 Democratic candidate for governor.

"We approached this session in a bipartisan fashion as opposed to last session," Perkins said. "We had to get back to being Nevadans first and partisans second, and I think we accomplished that."

Perkins should be congratulated for reaching out and for saying, "'I'm not pleased with what I did before,"' Assembly Minority Speaker Lynn Hettrick, R-Gardnerville, said.

"I don't think it was any one person's fault in 2003 because it came down to a battle over philosophy," Hettrick said. "On the surface, at least, it was a better session this time."

But Hettrick said minority Democrats in the Senate were still treated far better than Assembly Republicans when it came to getting bills heard in legislative committees and getting a share of pork barrel projects.

A different perspective was provided by Las Vegas lobbyist Jim Wadhams, who represents insurers, banks and homebuilders. He said he didn't sense much bipartisan cooperation.

"This was probably a more contentious session than everyone expected," Wadhams said. "I don't think it was friendly at all."

Biggest Achievements

The 2005 session will be remembered for significant movement in a number of major policy areas, assuming legislation that was passed will be signed into law by Guinn.

"The biggest thing the Legislature did was the property tax cap," Nevada Taxpayers Association President Carole Vilardo said. "We supported property tax relief because there were absolutely going to be major tax increases that would impact the property owners."

Businesses also got a proposed reduction in payroll taxes from .65 percent to .63 percent of gross payroll, which would save them an estimated $14 million over the next biennium.

"All-day kindergarten is important because kids can enter first grade ready to learn," Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, said. "Parents resoundingly wanted it. You cannot get kids prepared for school with only two-and-a-half hours a day of kindergarten."

Also on the list is a student services building, a science, engineering and technology facility and the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs building at UNLV, and a science and math facility at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Much of this was in response to overcrowded hospital emergency rooms in Southern Nevada due to a lack of psychiatric beds.

"From a human services perspective it was a great session," Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said. "The mental health budget went up 50 percent. Of course, we didn't have many mental health services to begin with. Even though we had mental health budget increases in the past we are now just beginning to be where we should be."

Lawmakers also approved bills to enable Nevadans to purchase lower-cost medicines from Canada through a state-run Web site, and to provide increased health care coverage to employees of small businesses, pregnant women and individuals who don't qualify for Medicare.

"There are tens of thousands of Nevadans caught in a debt treadmill," Assemblywoman Buckley said. "They borrow $200, pay back $1,000 on the loan and still get sued for another $1,000."

A state regulation that allowed car salesmen to renege on contracts with consumers within 15 days after the contracts were signed would be eliminated under another successful bill. Car salesmen often have told consumers that they have to pay more installments or higher interest than originally told.

"A lot of people don't realize that they don't have to agree to a new contract," Buckley said. "But they feel they have no choice because their old car is gone."

Bills were also approved to hire an ombudsman to investigate possible abuse or neglect of children in state custody, and to decrease caseloads in the Elko and Caliente state reformatories for juveniles.

The state engineer also could gain 11 water engineers and planners, subject to Guinn's approval. The intent is to help the state do a better job of monitoring water supplies.

"The state will be able to take a more active role because so much of the water in Nevada crosses county lines," Senator Titus said.

Lawmakers also passed an energy conservation bill that would result in property tax breaks for owners of buildings that meet conservation standards, exempt renewable energy systems from sales taxes, and authorize college courses in the construction of energy-efficient buildings.

"The energy bill was important in terms of conservation," Senator Townsend said.

A misdemeanor manslaughter bill was signed by Guinn that applies to motorists if they kill someone as the result of a traffic violation. Up to now, a motorist could run a stop sign, kill a pedestrian and receive a ticket only for running the stop sign as long as there were no other aggravating circumstances such as speeding or the consumption of alcohol.

"We've seen that our state has a growing problem with pedestrian safety and the public was demanding we do something about it," Leslie said. "Loved ones felt that an accident resulting in death where only a traffic ticket was issued was not adequate justice."

Another bill signed by Guinn provides that anyone with a felony conviction for driving under the influence will be charged with automatic felonies if they commit more DUIs. Domestic violence offenders will no longer be able to gain a civil compromise with the victim to avoid a misdemeanor battery charge under another bill signed by Guinn.

Lawmakers also voted to crack down on sex offenders and individuals convicted of crimes against children by increasing criminal penalties for offenses and requiring more complete notification.

"Tightening up the sex offender law was huge," Senator Titus, a primary sponsor of the legislation, said. "Nevada has been a haven for sex offenders. People come here because they can disappear easier here than elsewhere."

The rebates will be based on what car owners paid in 2004 vehicle registration fees with all eligible recipients receiving at least $75 but no more than $275. Seniors 65 and older as of Jan. 1 who don't own a vehicle but do possess a state identification card will also receive $75 checks.

State Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, the first politician to suggest a rebate, said he was pleased with the bipartisan compromise.

"I feel very good about it, and I'm happy to give all the credit to the governor," Beers said.

All state law enforcement officers and nurses will get an additional 10 percent raise next fiscal year.

Lingering issues

Everyone has an opinion on what wasn't accomplished.

To Vilardo, the taxpayers association president, the biggest oversight was the failure to address a looming financial crisis involving Nevada's health care plan for state and local government retirees. Vilardo said that if significant numbers of retirees claim major medical expenses simultaneously, the state won't have enough money to cover its share of the costs.

"It's not a politically palatable issue but sooner or later the health care plan has to be addressed," Vilardo said. "It's an unfunded liability."

She also said the Millenium Scholarship program should be reviewed again in the 2007 Legislature. Lawmakers on Tuesday tightened eligibility requirements for the $10,000 scholarships for students to attend Nevada universities and community colleges in order to keep the program financially solvent through 2017.

New students as of next year will not be able to use the scholarship for more than 12 course credits per semester. They must also maintain a grade point average of at least 2.75 beginning their second year in college to remain eligible for the scholarship, an increase from the current requirement of a 2.6 grade point average.

But Vilardo said lawmakers failed to account for alternative forms of higher education, such as lower-cost course work through the Internet, that could make it possible for students to earn more course credits with the $10,000 they have available.

"You've got students who want to graduate in four years with a specialized degree but they can't do it by getting only 12 credits a semester," Vilardo said.

Although rural Nevada got money to help explore the impact of water transfers to Southern Nevada, professor Herzik said the Legislature needs to study this issue in far more detail, particularly since Northern Nevada now faces potential water shortages because of its own growth.

"The Legislature also has to look at water conservation issues more seriously," Herzik said.

Lawmakers also didn't do enough to study the impact of the 2003 tax hikes and their relation to Nevada's economy, lobbyist Wadhams said.

"There should have been more careful thought on how to adjust the payroll tax," he said. "If a state budget surplus continues to be generated, adjusting the levels of taxation should be considered."

Legislators, of course, have their own opinions about issues that were left hanging. Assemblywoman Giunchigliani hopes the 2007 Legislature considers stiffer penalties against public officials who violate ethics provisions.

"We were not successful in getting much in the way of ethics changes," she said. "Local government will have to make the changes they want by ordinance."

Assemblywoman Leslie predicted that the Legislative Commission, made up of top lawmakers who meet between legislative sessions, would appoint a subcommittee to study neighborhood casinos.

Station Casinos, Boyd Gaming and Focus Property Group lobbied hard for legislation to limit any new neighborhood casinos to master-planned communities, which Focus develops.

The legislation also would have eliminated the Gaming Policy Committee, a group of citizens and state gaming regulators that has rejected two Las Vegas neighborhood casinos based on complaints from residents.

The Culinary Union, which has tried to organize workers at the neighborhood casino companies, and anti-neighborhood-gaming advocates, opposed the effort, which failed but is certain to come up again in the 2007 session.

"I always thought that this was an issue that was better solved locally," Leslie said. "There needs to be a whole lot more dialogue on this issue."

Nevada voters in 2004 approved a proposed constitutional amendment to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.15 an hour for workers who do not have health care insurance from their employers.

Buckley had hoped the Legislature would have approved the same measure this session so the wage increase could become effective immediately. But the bill failed, and the wage increase won't be implemented until 2007, assuming voters pass the constitutional measure again in November 2006.

"It's a shame people will have to wait another year and a half to get it approved," Buckley said. "That was a loss for Nevada workers."

Perkins, likewise, said he was disappointed in the failed attempt to pass a bill that would have established a state lottery to raise money for education.

"That was going to be a steady funding source of $40 million to $70 million a year for textbooks and classroom supplies," Perkins said.

Elimination of the franchise taxes paid by utility customers and collected by local government is something Senator Townsend said he would like the 2007 Legislature to consider. The issue will be studied by an interim legislative committee before then.

"My biggest disappointment was not getting the franchise tax eliminated," he said. "If local government needs the money, they should say so, but not do it on the backs of the utility customers."

One sticking point for Senator Beers was his failed attempt to change starting times for high schools in the Clark County School District. Beers said Clark County has the only high schools in the state that begin classes as early as 7 a.m., which he said is way too early for students to perform well.

He has already said he will help get an initiative on the 2006 general election ballot that would limit increases in state spending to the percentage of population growth plus inflation. His effort to pass a similar bill died in the Senate.