Sunday, May 24, 2009 | 2 a.m.
The dramatic end of the 2009 Legislature’s tax contortions was replete, as all capital denouements are, with many abominable lows and few magnificent highs.
But there were a few of the latter Friday as lawmakers rushed to complete the largest tax increase in history and deliver it to a chief executive almost none of them respects or trusts and who had become relevant only by a constitutional requirement that two-thirds of each house support a package that salvaged some essential services.
Indeed, the significance of Friday’s frenetic activity is not so much for what happened but what did not: The reinstatement of The Man Formerly Known as Governor as relevant in the process, which would have given him the ability to revivify a budget that would have done the unthinkable and made the quality of government services provided in our little backwater dramatically worse.
As it is, lawmakers slashed many critical services, some affecting the care of children in public schools and at home. It is far from a badge any of them should wear with honor.
But if not for a truly statesmanlike performance by the youngest majority leader in history, who decided to lose a battle to win a war, the state would be much worse off. Steven Horsford, who had slowly matured during the session, came of age Friday, allowing the master of legislative endgames, Bill Raggio, to do what he does best — run out the clock — but to sacrifice for the short term to preserve the long term.
In the end, Horsford had to allow the public policy grotesquerie of Raggio’s sunsets, the equivalent of saying they need to fund essential services but only for two years, and to water down language of a tax study designed to pave the way for change in 2011. In exchange, though, Horsford passed the tax package by the deadline, thus preventing a 36 percent cut in higher ed, losses in lower ed and innumerable reductions in a state that already funds services at minimal levels.
Raggio and the Republicans may have won a tactical victory, but to what end? The pressure they may have felt from the right will not assuage those who will only remember Raggio’s vote for the largest tax increase in history — the $781 million passed Friday plus the $200-plus million in the room tax.
Horsford had to give on some public benefit reforms, anathema to unions that are the bedrock of the Democrats’ political base. But what he knew — and others did, too — is that some or most of those reforms were needed for the state’s long-term fiscal health, and he did not allow the givebacks to reach extreme proportions. Horsford’s leadership was complemented Friday by Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, who told him her caucus could live with sunsets and who masterfully held her veto-proof coalition the entire session.
For those who believe no tax increases were necessary and a billion dollars in cuts would have been preferable, the real travesty was the performance of many of the Legislative Building’s Republicans. Using simple-minded, fatuous rhetoric, the equivalent of a verbal emetic, many of them voted against the tax increase but only after they had voted for hundreds of millions in new spending — either by supporting the lower education budget or the overall spending package.
They wanted the benefit — for campaign mail pieces especially — of saying they supported education but hypocritically opposed the revenue package to fund it. They did so without ever submitting an alternative tax package or cuts to offset the spending they supported.
They also used phrases such as “job-killing tax” for a .6 percent (!) increase in the minuscule payroll tax on big companies that was not seriously opposed by any business groups that know better.
This was especially true in the Assembly, where all 14 Republicans voted for hundreds of millions of new spending in the school fund but only one — John Carpenter — was consistent and voted for the tax increase. Six of the Assembly Republicans supported the budget and then voted against the taxes to fund what they had just endorsed.
This is the worst kind of craven, disingenuous behavior. But they are likely to receive kudos from a narrow base on the right that cares nothing for nuance and only for sound bites — the same shrinking sliver of the electorate that still supports Ø.
No one has much to be proud of this session. But considering what might have happened, some can hold their heads high and others should hang them in shame.
If only they knew which was which.
Jon Ralston hosts the news discussion program “Face to Face With Jon Ralston” on Las Vegas ONE and publishes the daily e-mail newsletter “RalstonFlash.com.” His column for the Las Vegas Sun appears Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.