Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Elections are waged to determine who gets to set policy on the big issues affecting the state. Once Election Day is over, only the votes of 63 lawmakers matter — plus the one, big veto pen at Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office.
As the campaign passes into election hangover and euphoria, Nevada still is grappling with highest-in-the-nation unemployment, more than half of all homes severely underwater, a K-12 education system that many say is failing and a social safety net frayed by four years of budget cuts.
Here’s a preview of the top five issues the Legislature will deal with when it meets in February:
The state’s economy isn’t in a freefall anymore and has shown some signs of recovery. But one thing is clear: The state’s not flush, and the budget fight promises to once again be a push and pull as policymakers decide between priorities.
More money for school districts? Special programs for young English language learners? Should the state expand its social safety net to take care of the mentally ill and mentally retarded? Or would money be better spent on more parole and probation officers watching offenders, more correctional officers for the state’s prisons or more service workers for veterans to help them access federal benefits?
And then there are state employees, who since 2009 have shouldered demoralizing furloughs, salary cuts and health care cost increases to balance the state’s budget.
Lawmakers from both parties have promised not to cut education, and some Democrats have called for increased funding. But balancing all that and dealing with the thorny issue of taxes, which require a two-thirds majority to pass in the Legislature, will be difficult.
Sandoval has indicated his support for extending about $620 million in taxes increases first passed in 2009 for another two years in order to prevent more cuts to education. But Sandoval also has said he wouldn’t support any additional tax increases.
And that line in the sand likely is to lead another fight over revenue.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers this campaign have expressed concern that Nevada’s tax system is too reliant on gaming and sales taxes. But without Sandoval’s support, many Democrats have said it’s doubtful higher taxes and more money for government are possible in 2013.
Instead, they’ve set their sights on a more modest goal: revenue-neutral tax reform that might include implementing a new business tax while lowering or eliminating other taxes.
Even that may be a tall order, considering Sandoval’s cautious stance on taxes in advance of his 2014 re-election bid.
But frustrated labor unions may force the Legislature’s hand. They continue their on gross receipts. A judge invalidated it, but if an appeal is successful, lawmakers will be forced to deal with it, or send it to voters.
3. Medicaid expansion
The most politically charged question will be whether to expand the state’s health care coverage of the poor as allowed under the Affordable Care Act. The expansion would cover an additional 70,000 people on Medicaid.
The decision, for now, rests with Sandoval’s administration. But lawmakers believe they can pass a bill to obligate the state to take federal money designed to offset some of the cost. Lawmakers would need a two-thirds majority to override the governor’s veto.
Sandoval has expressed concerns about how much it would cost the state but has refused to release his agency’s projections. A decision, he has said, won’t be made until after the election and after forecasters project how much revenue the state will have to spend in the next biennium.
Some Democrats have come out in favor of the expansion, but others have hesitated. Progressives are lobbying Sandoval and lawmakers to expand the system, arguing it would help reduce the number of uninsured Nevadans.
4. Gov. Brian Sandoval
Sandoval has amassed a wealth of political capital, becoming the most popular politician in the state. Now how’s he going to spend it?
Sandoval mostly stayed out of the presidential race. (He cut a late ad for Republican Gov. Mitt Romney after some conservatives openly complained about his lack of involvement.) Instead, he did mostly behind-the-scenes work to elect state Senate Republicans and help Sen. Dean Heller.
It fit into his political profile as a popular, if cautious, leader.
In his first session, Sandoval was an advocate for changing how the state handles economic development and education reform.
But on education reform, much of the the political capital was spent by Assembly Democrats, who drew the wrath of their traditional ally, the teachers union.
Sandoval has yet to announce his priorities for next session, but he will be looking for accomplishments he can base his re-election campaign on as well as issues that would draw bipartisan support.
Last year’s legislative redistricting shifted more power to the south. And for Southern Nevada partisans, it couldn’t come at a better time.
The new formula offered by the Nevada System of Higher Education would send millions more to the College of Southern Nevada, Nevada State College and UNLV. UNR would lose a little money, but rural campuses would see a sharp decrease in funds.
A second interim committee of the Legislature approved a report that found Nevada’s system of divvying up dollars to school districts, based primarily on geography, was antiquated. A more modern formula accounting for students with special needs, who are in poverty or are learning English would mean millions of dollars more for Southern Nevada.
While lawmakers and Clark County School District officials maintain they don’t want any district to be punished, a debate over how the state allocates education dollars is sure to emphasize regional differences.