Las Vegas Sun

May 25, 2019

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Is the path to taxes through reforms?

Democrats criticized by allies and opponents

Brian Sandoval

Brian Sandoval

John Oceguera

John Oceguera

Lynn Warne

Lynn Warne

Democrats in the Legislature have begun working on a strategy to raise taxes and prevent what they describe as the worst cuts in Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed budget.

The tactic: Offer legislation — on education, public employee pensions and construction defect complaints, to name a few — so appealing to Republican lawmakers that they abandon the governor and his cuts-only budget and sign on to raise taxes.

The difficulty of this endeavor was underscored this week, as Democratic lawmakers continued proposing, hearing and passing bills that fit Assembly Republicans’ broad demands for supporting a tax increase.

Democrats’ proposals have them taking heat from both sides: Their traditional allies, such as the teachers union and trial attorneys, are accusing them of caving to conservatives. Their Republican colleagues are criticizing them for not going far enough in their proposals to earn their votes for a tax increase.

This tension was most apparent Tuesday evening, as a Senate committee held a hearing on a bill by conservative Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, which would gut the state’s collective bargaining law.

Democratic allies, including firefighter, police and other public employee unions, angrily testified against the legislation. Conservatives, including Roberson, protested that supporters did not get as much time to testify as opponents.

In another session, such contentious conservative causes might not have had a hearing in Democratically controlled houses. But even though Democrats control the Assembly and Senate, they lack the two-thirds majority needed to pass a tax increase and override a Sandoval veto.

Typical of the outrage from Democratic allies: The education reforms passed Monday are “anti-union legislation dressed up as education reform,” said Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association.

Last month, Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said his caucus would consider extending taxes passed in 2009 worth $600 million in exchange for reforms in five areas: prevailing wage, construction defects, education, public employee retirements and collective bargaining.

To that end this week:

• An Assembly committee heard a Republican bill to curb prevailing wage laws.

• Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, introduced a bill on construction defect complaints. The Assembly also heard a bill sponsored by the Republican caucus that contractors, subcontractors and developers support, over the opposition of traditional Democratic ally the trial attorneys.

• The Assembly passed bills Monday to make it easier to fire teachers, and extend the time required for teacher tenure from one year to three years. The bills were sponsored by Assembly Democratic leadership, opposed by the teachers union.

• Oceguera will propose a bill on public employee retirement benefits, to limit “callback” time for firefighters.

Goicoechea said the reforms being proposed match his caucus’ demands.

But he’ll wait until the end of the session to judge whether the reforms go far enough.

“They have to,” he said. “What else are they going to do?”

He noted that Sandoval “still doesn’t think we’ll ever see reforms in the end. We’ll see.”

Both Oceguera and Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford maintained that they were open to common-sense reforms and sought to distance them from the horse trading that typically is used to pass a bill.

Horsford said “sensible, responsible reform is necessary. I will not tie it to education funding and other parts of the budget.”

“We’re serious about cuts,” Oceguera said. “We’re on board for reasonable reforms. But if we don’t have enough money, we need revenue.”

Oceguera has been working on construction defect legislation since the end of the 2009 session, when the Assembly killed a construction industry-supported bill. After a hearing Monday, Oceguera asked trial attorneys and construction industry representatives to negotiate a compromise.

Scott Canepa, a prominent construction defect attorney, said Oceguera “is trying to find a middle point, or middle ground, to give concessions to cultivate support for a budget.”

He was sympathetic to Oceguera’s position, but says the construction industry is “emboldened ... Right now, they’ve got some pretty big eyes.”

Republicans said construction defects should be tied to any tax increase because the issue is related to jobs — the construction defect process makes automatic payment for attorney fees, hurting construction companies.

But Republicans, appearing emboldened by their negotiating position, said this was just the beginning of needed reforms.

“This is a tiny baby step in where we need to go,” Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, said.

Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, said, “This body now has put its foot in the pool of reform and found the water just fine.”

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