AP Photo/Cathleen Allison
Tuesday, June 7, 2011 | 2:45 a.m.
CARSON CITY -- With the traditional rush to a close — this time a staffer had to literally sprint between houses to deliver the final bill, minutes before the clock struck 1 a.m. — the Nevada Legislature adjourned early today.
Sixty-three lawmakers, a legion of lobbyists and the media departed, having avoided a special session for only the third time since voters imposed the 120-day limit.
Some left winners, emerging with more power or money, or both. Others left losers, seeing their political stature or income take a hit. Here’s a scorecard of who won and who lost this session:
Winner: County governments
In some respects, it’s difficult to describe county governments as coming out ahead this legislative session. Although the Legislature mitigated many of the funding cuts and service shifts proposed by Gov. Sandoval, the counties are still taking on a $52.6 million burden form the state in costs that have been pushed on to the local governments or through elimination of programs. Still, county governments can be declared a winner after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled the state can’t target specific local funds for state purposes. The decision scuttled an $83.4 million money grab from Washoe and Clark counties. Perhaps more importantly, it significantly altered the power balance, taking from the state the leverage it used against county governments.
Nevada’s hospitals headed into the session on a bad roll -- a 5 percent cut to their Medicaid reimbursement rates in 2008 and facing a second 5 percent cut proposed by Sandoval. By sine die, however, the proposed 5 percent cut was eliminated and a mechanism was put in place that will help hospitals recoup lost Medicaid rates from the federal government. The moves will save hospitals an estimated $26 million.
When it comes to winning and losing at the Legislature, everything is relative. But the mining industry started the session with a target on its back as the only industry booming in a state suffering more than any other in the recession. The Nevada Mining Association had parted ways with its powerful lobbying firm, R&R Partners. Liberal organizations had been ginning up public opinion against the industry and lawmakers saw it as low-hanging fruit to help address the budget problem. Yet mining walked away paying only $24 million more in state taxes -- a decrease from the $38 million it would have paid under a law passed in the 2010 special session. The industry also will pay $24 million to county governments, but the bulk of that levy will expire in two years.
Winner: Firefighters, police and other local government employees
The Legislature modified collective bargaining rules, which govern contract negotiations between management and public employee unions. But local government employees in Nevada, which studies say are among the highest paid in the nation, won’t face major pressure to give back some of their salaries. That’s thanks to a Nevada Supreme Court ruling that the state’s taking of a Clark County water fund was unconstitutional. The ruling prevented the state from raiding other local government dollars, which state lawmakers had proposed as a backdoor way to bring local government salaries back in line. With that threat gone, so is the pressure on local government worker pay.
Winner: Chamber of Commerce/business
The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce took heat from conservative groups for its willingness to support sunsetting taxes in exchange for reforms to education, collective bargaining and other policies. But eventually, Sandoval and most Republicans came around to their position.
Payroll tax rates will remain the same for the large businesses, and will be eliminated entirely for the smallest members. Meanwhile, they have the conservative groups making them look like the reasonable players in all of this.
Winner: Pete Goicoechea/Assembly Republicans
When the rancher from Eureka said last year that the Legislature would have to consider raising taxes to bridge the budget deficit it seemed like a fatal error. Conservatives went after him. He was besieged by automated telephone calls from his constituents. Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, openly challenged him for leadership of the Assembly.
But Goicoechea held firm. In the opening days of the Legislative session, he laid out a list of five policy areas where his caucus wanted reforms, and said they would support extending the 2009 tax increases, which were set to expire. Goicoechea seemed immune to Sandoval’s “woodshed,” where he brought Republicans who went off the reservation and talked taxes.
So while Assembly Republicans left the session unsatisfied with the outcome on construction defect and prevailing wage laws, Sandoval and the Senate Republicans came around to their position -- negotiating reforms for extending the 2009 taxes.
Goicoechea’s approach suggested that being straightforward isn’t a bad thing in politics.
Winner: Tavern owners
Even before voters passed the indoor smoking ban, the gaming industry, tavern owners and slot-route operators fought it. This time, they eked out a victory. Sean Higgins, owner of the Three Angry Wives Pub and lobbyist for a coalition of tavern owners, convinced lawmakers to allow adults-only bars to serve food to smoking customers. Public health advocates decried the legislation as exposing an expanded number of workers to secondhand smoke.
Loser: Arena developers
The three developers who rushed to Carson City in the final days of the legislative session to wow lawmakers with their proposed arena projects, faced a last-minute time crunch and a powerful committee chairwoman, Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, whose mission seems to be to ensure private developers don’t exploit taxpayers on economic incentives. In the end, those dynamics crushed efforts by the well-monied developers who spent heavily on high-powered lobbyists. In total, the three projects missed out on more than $500 million in tax dollars over three decades.
Loser: Bobby Ellis
The Henderson tow-company owner and long-time political contributor tried to take on what some have described as the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s tow-truck monopoly. In what became one of the most lobbied bills of the session, Ellis pushed legislation that would have allowed insurance companies to choose the tow yard where they would take vehicles involved in a crashes. Had the bill passed, Ellis was positioned to capture that business from Metro’s two tow companies, giving him access to the revenue generated from some of the 30,000 vehicles towed from crash sites in Las Vegas each year. The bill died in committee last month after a heavy push from some of the state’s most powerful lobbyists, working on behalf of Metro’s two favored tow companies, to kill it.
Loser: Caesars Entertainment
Not only did the powerful gaming company fail to convince lawmakers to pass their initiative petition to levy a special Strip sales tax to finance an arena, legislators crafted an opposing ballot question that will make it even more difficult for the company to convince voters next November to back its tax proposal.
Loser: Teachers/school district employees
Sandoval proposed they take a 11 percent pay cut, when salary reductions are combined with higher benefit costs. Democratic lawmakers whittled it down to about 7.5 percent. And on top of that, it will be easier to fire poorly performing teachers, while new employees will be required to work longer before receiving “tenure.” Teachers will also face new evaluation standards.
The Clark County Education Association is saying the union will not make any pay concessions. If that happens, they can preserve salaries and benefits, but it will come at a price: colleagues being laid off and class sizes increasing.
Loser: Chuck Muth/movement conservatives
They had Gov. Jim Gibbons, but he had personal distractions that cost him his political career. So Brian Sandoval left the federal bench, and came on to win. He promised no new taxes and not to extend taxes set to expire. Those pledges ran counter to his reputation as a moderate and his surrounding cast of middle-of-the-road Republican characters.
When the Supreme Court ruled that the state couldn’t use local tax money to solve the state’s budget problems, Sandoval seemed to leap at the chance to extrapolate the $62 million at issue in the court case into a $650 million problem. Or at least that’s how Muth and other conservative activists saw it.
Sandoval came out breaking his pledge, but looking reasonable in the process. Conservatives lost their best chance in a generation to dramatically shrink government. And while some reforms to education were significant, none of the changes to collective bargaining, for example, dramatically changed the landscape. Now the conservatives are left bellyaching, their second conservative GOP governor having left them disappointed and alone on an island of “no new taxes.”