Las Vegas Sun

December 15, 2017

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CARSON CITY - Reeling from revelations that the "green"-construction bill they approved two years ago promises to bleed the state of crucial tax revenue , lawmakers have turned to Debbie Smith and Marilyn Kirkpatrick to fix the legislative nightmare.


In a political world dominated by me-me-me politicians, Smith and Kirkpatrick are a pair of unpretentious Democratic assemblywomen who are now being leaned on by their colleagues to take care of a real political headache.

Smith, 51, is a Sparks homemaker and three-term assemblywoman who works with her husband for a union and has dedicated life outside of her family to community service. Forty-year-old Kirkpatrick of Las Vegas, now in her second term, is a wholesale foods sales rep and the wife of a construction worker who spent a her teens in Child Haven, a center for children with unfit parents.

Not exactly headline grabbers.

There's no one up here, though, who doubts the duo's drive and work ethic. By virtue of both, the two had crafted a compromise bill that was approved Saturday by the Assembly and will be taken up today by a Senate committee.

If that bill becomes law, it will become a testament not only to their hard work but, both acknowledge, to the legislative strengths they picked up by, of all things, being parents. Between them, they have nine children.

"The parenting stuff really applies," Smith says. "You have to be firm, controlled , and you have to work hard at it. That's how you win."

Weeks ago, legislative leaders asked whether the two might look at fixing the law that gives tax breaks to environmentally friendly, or green, builders. Conceived as an environmental incentive in a state known for anything but environmentalism, the tax break was so good - up to 50 percent property tax breaks for 10 years - it promised to drain state coffers of crucial state tax dollars. At the time, the Legislature didn't understand the consequences of its actions.

State economists have since calculated the loss of revenue from seven projects that wanted the breaks at about $940 million in 10 to 15 years.

Armed with that information, and having done the research on green incentives in other states, Smith and Kirkpatrick emerged with sweeping changes last week. A sales tax break was gone. When a business representative learned of their proposal to dramatically decrease property tax breaks, she cried. Literally.

"If you do something that makes a lobbyist cry, you must be tough," says Sen. Randolph Townsend, a Republican from Reno who is a big supporter of green legislation. He says Kirkpatrick is the prototype of a good lawmaker.

Other lawmakers, even lobbyists, are calling them "The Dynamic Duo."

Under their breath, lobbyists with major stakes in the outcome of the process might call them something else. Threats of lawsuits from developers were commonplace last week.

Although Smith is relatively isolated from the huge money influence of casinos, Kirkpatrick's northwest Las Vegas district is well within the reaches of a casino's political campaign machine.

She says she doesn't care. She will do everything she can to create a good public policy, even if it costs her this job come next election.

"It means more for me to do what's right than to be up here worrying about someone being mad at me," Kirkpatrick says.

It's Thursday morning and Kirkpatrick's eyes are slightly bloodshot and puffy. She laughs when recalling how she and Smith were just asked to "look into" the green-building law.

Now, her desk is overflowing with pages of studies from other states and facts and figures and bill redrafts.

What if she loses the next election because she angers casino operators?

"If I get taken out?" Kirkpatrick repeats. "Guess what? I've got plenty of other things to do. I think that's what makes it different for me. I'm not here to make everybody happy."

It's just such an unhappy casino lobbyist who, minutes before, got into a testy debate with Smith in the hallway outside her office.

She's wearing a tan sort-of-power suit that doesn't imply power as much as it does approachability. He overpowers her in his real power suit. Holding documents in one hand, he's gesturing with the other. The blue tag on his breast pocket marks him as a lobbyist.

He represents a casino. Casinos aren't happy with what they've heard in the past few days. As late as last week, giants such as the MGM Mirage had expected to collect about $395 million in state-approved tax breaks on the $7.4 billion CityCenter, a casino/hotel/condo/retail project on the Strip. Now it's in jeopardy.

He's telling Smith just what he thinks of that plan.

"We lost all of our abatement," he whispers with force. "The project was out off the ground. Now we're notified that what we were told (about tax breaks) is not true."

She turns the tables and scolds him - remember, she has children - for not having been present at a public meeting discussing the issue.

"You had no one there," she say s. "If you're not there, how can we know your concerns?"

The lobbyist says his bosses told him not to bother, that Smith and Kirkpatrick had "given them the shaft."

"There will be a war," the lobbyist declares.

The calm on Smith's face, you think, is simple exhaustion.

For the past couple of weeks, she and Kirkpatrick, who are roommates in Carson City during the session, are catching snippets of three to five hours sleep a night. Tuesday night, Kirkpatrick slept under a coat on the couch in her office.

Smith looks almost bleary-eyed from fatigue. But that's not why she seems calm, her daughter Erin Smith says.

"She's soooo low-key," says the daughter, who works in the office of Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley. Then she makes claws of her hands to show how she signals her mom when she thinks she's being too nice to people.

"But that's just her," Erin Smith says, sighing. "She gets devastated when she has to tell people they can't get what they want. She does it, but it's not easy for her."

On the other side of the duo, Kirkpatrick is gregarious, quick to laugh and always, it seems, unafraid.

Smart and tough but very fair. That's how she's summarily described by other lawmakers and lobbyists, both Republican and Democratic.

"Very bright, very industrious, very hardworking," Townsend says. "She has that quality that more of us need. And that's bringing issues to the table in a nonconfrontational way. She says, 'Let's talk,' not 'My way or the highway.' "

There's a huge gulf between Kirkpatrick, who is willing to research and dig and ask tough questions, and lawmakers who sit quietly and let the process pass them by. They're the ones who won't talk publicly about the difficult green-tax bill because they don't want to be forced into court if developers sue down the road.

Kirkpatrick credits her childhood, in part, for her toughness. A Las Vegas native, she spent three years in Child Haven, the closest thing to an orphanage in Clark County. Her father has since died; she doesn't talk to her mother. Going through that, she says, hones your survival instincts. For some, it also makes them thicker-skinned.

For Kirkpatrick, it made her more sympathetic and it made her a worker.

"You have two choices in life," she says. "You either suck it up and move on or you feel sorry for yourself."

Very quickly and only because she is asked, she tells the story of the grandmother she met when she was campaigning door-to-door three years ago. The grandmother said that she had been left with her daughter's baby, and that grandpa was very ill, and that she wanted to go back to nursing to make some money.

Kirkpatrick empathized and wanted to help. She got her daughter to babysit .

Today, Kirkpatrick's family watches the little girl four days a week.

As she is telling the story, her phone rings. It's her husband. She wants to talk but has to get back to her committee.

Soon, Smith shows up and the two sit down briefly with a big, friendly calculator to punch in numbers to see how their new formula for figuring out green tax breaks will look. They're both so tired, when they start punching in some numbers, they simply dissolve into laughter.

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