Las Vegas Sun

December 18, 2018

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Legislature 2013:

Democrats cry uncle on taxes, accuse Republicans of obstruction

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Sen. Kelvin Atkinson

If there’s one promise Democrats have kept so far this session, it’s to have a discussion about taxes.

But with the majority party’s capitulation on the Senate floor Tuesday that their payroll tax hike proposal is dead, it appears that discussion is all it’s going to be, with the session ending in just 13 days.

“We have talked about education ad nauseam,” said Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas. “It’s not going to go anywhere. We realized that today.”

Not that Democrats are happy about it. Angry, resigned, tearful, frustrated and indignant may better describe their emotional state during an hours-long floor fight in which the two parties pointed accusing fingers at one another.

“It’s called minority rule, and that’s the situation we’re in,” said Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks. “We’ve tried. We’ve done what we’ve done every session.”

Indeed, Democrats did seem to dust off their old playbook in an attempt to garner support from business leaders who consistently complain about the state of education in Nevada and from Republicans who early on promised a sincere desire to change the tax structure.

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Sen. Debbie Smith

That playbook failed to work in 2009. It failed to work in 2011. And it seems poised to fail again in 2013.

Although Democrats have repeatedly and passionately proclaimed the need for immediate education funding, they decided to stand down Tuesday.

Asked why the party didn’t refuse to pass the governor’s budget and push into the summer months to demand action on their priorities, Smith said it likely wouldn’t work. The governor, or a two-thirds majority involving Republicans, is needed to call a special session.

“We’d still be at the call of the governor to fall on our swords,” Smith said. “At some point we have to be pragmatic.”

The capitulation is a further indication that Democrats will concede to Gov. Brian Sandoval, passing in large part his $6.6 billion state budget plan. Sandoval has proposed $120 million in additional funding for English-language learner programs, full-day kindergarten and other programs.

Democrats have argued the funding is not enough for a school system burdened with massive class sizes and poor graduation rates while undergoing $700 million in cuts through the recession.

But Republicans, led by Sandoval, refused to consider a tax increase this session. Sandoval, who faces re-election next year, contends the recovering economy will be enough to fund education services. And Republicans in the Legislature decided to back him.

The Democrats did not fall quietly on their swords, accusing Republicans of failing to meet their obligation to negotiate in good faith a way to fix Nevada’s tax structure.

“It’s not just the majority party’s duty to come up with something,” Atkinson said. “Maybe the minority party has suggested something, and maybe we feel like what they’ve suggested isn’t good enough.”

Usually the chamber of composed deliberation, the Senate devolved Tuesday into a sparring match with Republicans and Democrats taking jabs at one another over leadership. Roberson opened with a broadside against the Democrats for airing their angst on the Senate floor.

“Sometimes I understand that people have the need to say things to feel better about themselves,” he said.

He then chastised Democrats for not giving their own tax plan a hearing.

“People outside this room throughout the state expected more this session from the majority party,” he said. “You all need to lead and not be afraid of the consequences.”

But absent a willingness from Republicans to negotiate in good faith and come to some type of compromise, Democrats say they cannot achieve the two-thirds majority vote they need to pass any kind of tax reform plan.

Here’s the crux of the legislative logjam:

Roberson and his allies have put forward a plan to pass a ballot initiative that would tax the mining industry at a higher rate while also competing with a 2 percent business margins tax initiative that’s already on the ballot.

Democrats still haven’t given that proposal a hearing, effectively killing the bill.

Republicans have said they won’t vote for the Democrats’ payroll take hike, effectively killing their bill.

Meanwhile, legislators appear to agree with myriad studies indicating the state’s tax structure is way out of whack. They agree that paying for education priorities such as full-day kindergarten, English-language learner programs and class-size reduction are paramount for Nevada’s future. They agree that they’d like to reinstate pay cuts for state employees.

In proposing the mining tax hike, even Roberson and his five cohorts have conceded that the education system in Nevada needs significantly more money than Sandoval has proposed in his budget.

Yet, a compromise on how to do that continues to elude lawmakers.

Democrats feel the pressure to compromise more acutely than Republicans, who are fine with passing Sandoval’s budget and getting out of town June 3, the last day of the legislative session.

Republicans declared Tuesday that the major work of the legislative session is basically done, essentially saying that Democrats will now have no choice but to pass the Republican governor’s budget, and Sandoval will trot away from the legislative session looking forward to a sunny re-election campaign in 2014.

“The reality is, we’re going to go with the governor’s recommendation,” said Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City. “We’re through that denial. We’re now going to get real and say what it is that we’re going to do.”

Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, stood on the Senate floor to basically shrug at Mo Denis lamenting the death of his payroll tax increase.

“If he wants to throw in the towel, that’s fine,” he said. “This governor’s recommended budget is pretty darn good.”

Democrats promised to return to work in the final days of the session, vowing to work late hours and inviting Republicans to rejoin them at the negotiating table.

Denis had the last word of the floor debate.

“I haven’t thrown in the towel,” he said. “I will never throw in the towel when it comes to our kids."

Even with just 13 days left, Denis said, “It’s not over.”

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