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Tax hike, vetoes and economic woes define session

Tempers flare in final minutes as lawmakers near adjournment

Updated Tuesday, June 2, 2009 | 1:29 a.m.

Legislature's final day

Nevada Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, yawns during a session in the Senate chambers at the Legislature in Carson City on June 2, 2009. Launch slideshow »

The highlights

  • Legislators passed a $781 million tax plan to avoid the deep cuts proposed by Gov. Jim Gibbons. He vetoed the tax plan but was overridden by lawmakers.
  • Legislators' total number of successful veto overrides rose to a record 25. Gibbons vetoed a record 41 bills, out of nearly 1,000 sent to him by legislators.

Who's leaving

  • Outgoing legislators include Sens. Maurice Washington, Terry Care, Maggie Carlton, Bob Coffin, Mark Amodei, Bernice Mathews and Randolph Townsend; and Assembly members Buckley, Bernie Anderson, Morse Arberry, Jerry Claborn, Ellen Koivisto, Mark Manendo, Kathy McClain, Harry Mortensen, John Carpenter and Sheila Leslie.

CARSON CITY – The Nevada Legislature has closed but it will be remembered for passing the largest tax increase in history, its battles with Gov. Jim Gibbons and Democrats being in charge of both houses for the first time since 1991.

The Assembly ended its business at 11:56 p.m. Monday. The Senate shut down at 12:27 a.m. Tuesday.

Traditionally the two houses close their business within a few minutes of each other. But Assembly members were walking out of the building while the Senate was still conducting business.

It was the first time this decade that lawmakers closed on the 120-day time limit and didn’t need a special session to complete their business.

Tempers appear as session draws to close

There were moments of pandemonium at the end. The most dramatic moment happened at about 11:30 p.m., when tempers flared in the final minutes of the legislative session.

With the Senate and Assembly in recess, Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Reno, confronted Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, outside the speaker’s office.

Voices rose, and when Smith tried to leave the speaker’s office, Washington appeared to stand in her way. "Don't block me," she told him.

He blamed her for killing a charter school bill, she said later. Smith tried to walk by Washington, and Washington followed closely, arguing with her.

"Will you let me speak, will you let me speak," she said at one point. She started pointing at him, and she said he knocked her hand away.

He continued to speak loudly to her and followed her into the Assembly chambers. At that point, Assemblyman William Horne, D-Las Vegas, got in front of Washington. Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, rushed onto the Assembly floor to take Washington away.

"He was blaming me for killing his bill," she said later. "I was saying, 'that's not me. That's not me.' Bills die. I had my biggest bill of the session die today."

Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, said she was in the Assembly chambers when Smith came in, followed by Washington who was yelling at her about the bill.

"She was frazzled," Kirkpatrick said of Smith. "I've never seen her like that, and we've lived together for three years."

In another odd moment, a ceremonial committee of three Assembly members went to the Senate chambers to announce the Assembly had finished. The doors were blocked and they were refused entry into the Senate as the upper house tried to act on more bills.

Assemblyman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, came back about 15 minutes later with Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, and Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, R-Henderson, to finish their ceremonial duty. They again were blocked at the door.

"I was already locked out once," Anderson said. "I'm not waiting around for another 10 minutes. I'm not waiting around for five minutes. This is (expletive)."

Finally, they let him in to make the announcement. A few minutes later, the Senate passed the last bill of the session, Senate Bill 395, which was one of the governor's energy bills.

Then they were done.

Firsts and rare occurrences

Among the final bills passed was one setting in motion plans to reopen F Street to downtown Las Vegas. Efforts also were made to revive bills involving seat belts, text messaging and a gaming enterprise district in Las Vegas on the final day of the Legislature. They had died earlier but were resurrected. But they failed to gain passage again on Monday.

This was the last regular session for seven senators and 10 Assembly members, who lose their offices to term limits.

It is believed to be the first time that a lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, was under a criminal indictment during the session. Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki was indicted on a charge of misusing funds in the state’s scholarship fund –- an accusation he adamantly denies.

The economic downturn had taken its toll on the state and Gibbons recommended a $6.2 billion, two-year general fund budget, down from $6.8 billion in the current biennium. The Legislature rejected many of the reductions suggested by Gibbons and enacted a $390 million-a-year tax increase.

Gibbons and the Legislature were at odds during most of the session. He vetoed more than 40 bills, which was a record. These included the state’s $6.6 billion budget and higher taxes to pay for it. Lawmakers easily overrode the governor on most major vetoes.

And Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, may be in the race for governor next year, possibly taking on Gibbons.

The Senate this session became famous, or infamous, for its 10-minute recesses -– that sometimes lasted more than two hours. And the Senate was notoriously late in starting its sessions.

There were party caucuses that lasted for hours, delaying the start of the daily session. And there were frequent closed-door meetings between legislative leaders as they tried to agree on plans.

Wrapping up the session

The final day Monday was devoted to cleaning up loose ends.

The Senate voted to approve of Assembly Bill 304 to require the city of Las Vegas to put up $22.5 million toward reopening F Street to the downtown area from the predominantly black neighborhood of West Las Vegas.

The state Transportation Department and the city will work to find federal funds for the project that could cost anywhere from $40 million to $70 million.

The Senate left standing Senate Bill 354, which extends the Las Vegas Strip district to also include downtown Las Vegas. Outside this district a casino cannot come within 1,500 feet of a church. There is one Catholic Church in downtown Las Vegas and one on the Strip. This would have removed a barrier to expansion by the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas, Wynn Las Vegas and for Marriott International.

The Senate initially passed a bill to make failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense, but it died in the Assembly. The Senate revived a bill Monday that would have permitted law enforcement officers to stop motorists for not wearing a seat belt, but it never got to a vote in the Assembly.

Another bill called for a study to determine if there is racial profiling in such vehicle stops and how many lives a primary seat belt law would save. Currently, a law enforcement officer can only cite a motorist for not wearing a seat belt if the driver had also committed another offense.

A bill to prohibit text messaging while driving was revived on the final day. It had passed the Senate but died in the Assembly Transportation Committee. It also never gained final passage in the Assembly.

The Senate upheld the veto of Gibbons on a bill that set up a special rainy day fund for public schools during tough economic times. The vote was 12-9. Fourteen votes were needed to override the veto.

The Senate voted 21-0 to override the veto of Gibbons on Assembly Bill 493, which required the state Public Employees Retirement Board to report to lawmakers if they have money invested in companies that do petroleum business in Iran.

The bill does not prohibit investment in these firms but does call attention to them doing business with the company.

Gibbons’ veto was upheld in the Senate on a Buckley-sponsored bill that would have required the state to set long-term goals and evaluate whether they were achieving them. There was no money appropriated to develop these performance standards and the effort to override the governor lost on a 12-9 vote. Fourteen votes were needed to overturn the governor.

The Legislature overturned 25 of Gibbons’ 41 vetoes.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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