Las Vegas Sun

November 20, 2019

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Deadlines looming, decisions stay secret

As legislative session wanes, public has less of a chance to influence budget talks

Lobbyist Bob Ostrovsky took something of a beating from the state Assembly last week.

Ostrovsky, whose clients include insurers, gaming companies and North Vista Hospital, saw Assembly committees approve bills to allow patients to collect more on medical malpractice awards in some instances and to give employees more leverage in workers’ compensation insurance cases.

Late in the week Ostrovsky was seen leaving the Legislature for an early lunch with state Sen. Randolph Townsend, a Reno Republican. It was a revealing moment: As legislation moves from the Assembly to the Senate and vice versa, it is time for lobbyists to start working allies on the other side.

The Legislature’s 120-day session is nearly two-thirds finished. Although the real work in many ways is just beginning, the session has offered some clues as to the texture and momentum of this Legislature, which has been marked by empty pockets, Democrats warming up to their new role in the majority, a short list of intense policy fights and, as usual, plenty of engaging personalities.

Here is a look at what we know so far.

Nevada faces the largest budget shortfall, by percentage, of any state in the country. State government had a $2.3 billion hole to maintain state services at the level the Legislature passed in 2007, and that was before lawmakers learned they will receive $400 million to $500 million less in tax revenue than expected.

Gov. Jim Gibbons’ proposed budget included a 6 percent pay cut for state workers and teachers and a 36 percent cut in higher education. He included a 3 percentage point room tax increase in his budget, which takes effect July 1.

Democrats and Republicans have criticized the budget, saying the cuts are too draconian.

A tax increase is coming.

The questions now are: Who pays, and how much?

High-level talks occur twice a week between legislative leaders from both parties, from both houses.

The list of cuts in Gibbons’ budget legislators have tentatively agreed to undo remains secret.

Legislative leaders have said they will announce their decisions after new revenue projections come out May 1. Meanwhile, legislative staff is working to determine the amount of money the state can use from the federal stimulus, with the total expected to be as much as $650 million.

Given that the Legislature is to adjourn June 1, the timetable will give the public just a few weeks to consider the revised budget and the tax package.

According to sources with knowledge of the discussions, legislative leaders are considering extending the existing sales tax on merchandise to include services; increasing the modified business tax, which is based on payroll; and raising a host of other taxes, including fees on alcohol and cigarettes.

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A corporate income tax is unlikely, as both Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, and Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, have specifically warned against it.

Sources say there’s no consensus on which taxes to raise.

With Gibbons promising a veto on any additional tax increase, at least two Republicans in the Senate must agree to vote to override, assuming all 12 Democrats go along, which isn’t guaranteed.

Some business lobbyists are grumbling that the Legislature is shaping up as “anti-business” because Democrats control both houses for the first time since 1989.

Buckley called that notion nonsense. “Democrats aren’t anti-business,” she said in an interview. “Businesses create jobs, and we want jobs for our constituents.”

Lobbyists point to the bills that would tilt the workers’ compensation system toward workers and raise the cap on damages in some medical malpractice cases, as well as a bill that would give new authority to the attorney general in antitrust cases to prevent monopolies.

Danny Thompson, the head of the state AFL-CIO, said he was happy to have friends in leadership who offer a sympathetic ear on issues like workers’ compensation, but he added it was small comfort. “Everyone is just trying to get out alive,” he said. The state’s economic crisis has dampened goals, and Thompson expects the situation to worsen among his construction industry members as big projects such as CityCenter are completed this year.

But even as Democrats have tilted left on some policy issues, they have been unafraid to express some tough love for their traditional allies. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, passed a bill out of his committee that will help builders reduce construction defect litigation costs, much to the chagrin of plaintiffs’ lawyers, who are usually political allies of Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, has also been in a public fight with the teachers union over his education reform agenda, which seeks to revamp schools in Nevada, giving teachers more money but also expecting more of them.

A lobbyist usually aligned with Democrats but suffering from some of that tough love said it’s not unusual to take on a favored interest group, “Just not all of them at the same time.”

With the economic crisis hanging over everything, it’s been hard to move much policy. In a normal year legislators would be eager to invest in, say, renewable energy with tax incentives and money for the universities. But this year they have money only for bare essentials.

Still, there have been a few intense policy fights that will continue as the session concludes, including on medical malpractice, workers’ compensation and construction defects. Gay rights bills have also come to the fore, with bills to prevent workplace and public facility discrimination against transgender Nevadans, and to extend legal rights to domestic partners.

A host of energy bills is pending, with most trying to encourage development of renewable energy, which legislators see as a way to end Nevada’s reliance on gaming and tourism.

Other bills would improve worker safety after the construction deaths on the Strip, and regulate health care better after the hepatitis C outbreak at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada.

Buckley and Horsford are also pushing legislation to limit foreclosures, including a bill that would ease homeowners into mediation with lenders so they can keep their homes.

The session is a swan song for many legislators as term limits force them out, and many are playing the part.

In his final weeks Sen. Townsend chides what he considers foolishness during hearings, or sometimes reads the newspaper when bored, or walks the building and pops into committees that he doesn’t sit on.

Sen. Maurice Washington and Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, who have long worked on health care issues, talked during a hearing about their legacy, fearing they would watch it erode this session as the state caromed toward bankruptcy.

All the while, Gibbons’ performance continues to baffle lawmakers and lobbyists. He is politically isolated and has played very little role in the crafting of policy.

His interesting personal life, which includes a very public divorce, draws snickering from Republicans and Democrats alike.

With his veto stamp in hand, however, the governor is still a powerful man.

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