Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 | 2 a.m.
In the race to control the state Senate, Republicans have built a sizable cash advantage as business interests signal with campaign donations that they want control of the state’s upper house taken away from Democrats.
Political action committees controlled by Republican leaders and key Senate candidates took in nearly $460,000, most of it in the last few months of 2011. The Democratic caucus and its major PAC raised only $200,000.
The money for Republicans came from a variety of industries, including taxicab companies, mining, registered agents, retailers and gaming.
The most glaring example of the disparity: Likely Republican leader Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, raised $160,000 for his “Senate Majority” PAC. Meanwhile, Democratic caucus leader Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, raised a tenth of that, $15,000, for his “Majority 2012.”
Donations of up to $10,000 are allowed by state law.
Democrats currently hold an 11-10 advantage in the state Senate, which is seen as key to shaping policy — not only in how tax proposals would be written, but also on issues from education to construction defects.
For most of the past two decades, moderate Democrats have controlled the Assembly and moderate Republicans have controlled the Senate, providing, in the eyes of the establishment, a balance that tempered policy.
During the past two sessions, as Democrats controlled both houses, they passed bills favoring labor and trial attorneys, their traditional allies. Democrats still hold voter registration advantages in what are expected to be the two most heavily targeted seats, Senate District 5 in Las Vegas and Senate District 6 in Henderson.
But interviews with business lobbyists, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships with Democrats, revealed why money has flowed to Republicans.
• Roberson and other leaders, like Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, were much more persistent in seeking donations.
• Business lobbyists fear that if Democrats retain control, more liberal senators will chair key committees, such as Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, as head of Senate Finance and Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, as chair of judiciary.
• Many business groups were unhappy with Democrats’ control of the Assembly and Senate in 2011. Large industries complained that Democratic leadership waited until too late to introduce a tax package that would have broadened the tax base and raised enough money to slow momentum for ballot initiatives. (Several initiatives have been proposed to go after mining, gaming and a gross receipts tax on all businesses.)
Denis, the Democratic leader, said his caucus met its goals for fundraising and he has promises of support from many of the industries and companies that gave to Republicans.
He noted that Republican fundraising slowed after the legislative maps were released, showing Democratic edges in key Senate districts.
“Our message is the same: We can provide a balanced Legislature,” Denis said. He noted the candidacy this year of Democrat and businessman Benny Yerushalmi, who was endorsed by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce when he ran unsuccessfully in 2010.
But Roberson said the fundraising imbalance shows “folks in this state want balance in the Legislature.”
He promised a “reform agenda” on education, including school vouchers, and collective bargaining for public employees, among other issues.
Roberson made a name for himself in his first session, 2011, as a vocal advocate of conservative causes.
Because he showed a unwillingness to reach across the aisle, Leslie predicted “gridlock” if Republicans take the state Senate.
Segerblom, who’s running for state Senate, said even if Democrats hold onto their seats, they couldn’t raise taxes without Republican support. (It takes a two-thirds majority in Nevada’s Legislature to raise taxes, or override a governor’s veto.)
Segerblom predicted Democratic supporters will step up.
“You haven’t seen the traditional Democratic sources come to play yet — the unions, the teachers,” Segerblom said. “We haven’t seen the big hotels yet and they’ve traditionally contributed to both sides.”
Asked about perception he might not be as business-friendly as Republicans, Segerblom said: “If that means we’re not just going to give them everything they want, that we support the 99 percent instead of the 1 percent, that’s probably true. That’s why we’re Democrats.”