With three weeks left until the session ends, the 2013 Legislature appears set to go out with a whimper.
Although Democratic leadership says everything is on schedule, only a dozen bills have reached Gov. Brian Sandoval, 200 measures remain stalled in the money committees and only one piece of the Democrats’ tax plan has been introduced. At this point in the 2011 session, the governor had signed 48 bills into law.
“We have four signings today,” he said Friday. “That brings us to 11.” A 12th measure was approved later Friday.
Already-approved measures include the Internet gaming bill and the bill funding operation of the Legislature; Sandoval has signed every bill sent to him. In 2011, he had vetoed one measure by this point: Senate Bill 497. He said then that the redistricting plan it called for cheated Hispanics out of a chance at congressional representation.
Officials, lobbyists agree pace is slow
A number of veteran state officials and lobbyists also say this session is moving slowly, but most aren’t objecting much.
State officials say that works well for the governor because both his budget and his policy initiatives tend to come out with fewer changes than in most sessions, when lawmakers are unable to find broad agreement.
Lobbyists say the pace is OK by them, as lobbyists spend more time trying to derail bills that hurt their clients than trying to pass measures that help them.
Director of Administration Jeff Mohlenkamp said he has seen just two major changes to the governor’s recommended budget — not moving Parole into the Department of Corrections’ budget and the expansion of state staffing to handle the Nevada Early Intervention Services program for medically fragile infants.
Senate Finance Chairman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said Parole won’t move to Corrections because the administration can’t explain adequately why it should be done, “and it loses money.”
One lobbyist with more than 20 years experience compared leadership this session to the dysfunction of the 1985 session when Republicans, led by Speaker Bill Bilyeu and Majority Leader Charlie Joerg, ran the Assembly. He also compared it to the 2003 session, when the “mean 15” Republicans blocked any tax increases until John Marvel of Battle Mountain changed his vote in the second special session to make sure schools were funded. That second special session didn’t end until July 22.
The measures still in the Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means committees include major initiatives by majority Democrats to increase education funding and return highway funds from the general fund to the Nevada Department of Transportation so they can pay for infrastructure projects. Those two measures alone would require an infusion of more than $400 million.
The chairs of those committees say they plan to resolve the major budget issues this week.
“We are on schedule, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Smith said.
Smith said that, as always, what’s left are the big decisions: whether lawmakers can do more to restore employee pay and benefits; how much is available to expand K-12 education funding; and funding for the university system.
A key issue in the university budgets is whether funding can be restored to prevent devastating cuts to Western Nevada College and Great Basin College.
K-12 and higher education make up more than half the state general fund budget.
Smith and other Democrats say they are committed to expanding all-day kindergarten and English-language-learner programs beyond what the governor has proposed.
That takes money, and despite early promises to bring a “real plan” that fixes Nevada’s tax system long term, only one piece of legislation has been introduced — just this past week. A live-entertainment admissions tax sought by Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, would eliminate almost all existing exemptions to the 10 percent casino live-entertainment tax. The bill also would impose an 8 percent levy on almost every event that charges people to get in. It wasn’t warmly received by anyone including some members of her own caucus because it would not only affect those attending major events such as Burning Man, but theater tickets, gym memberships, ski lift tickets, baseball and other sporting events. Brothels would be exempt.
Even if enacted, the plan would only generate about $50 million a year, according to staffers.
Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, has yet to introduce his piece of the puzzle.
“We’re still waiting on their tax package,” said Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson. “The Democrats came to me Wednesday and proposed a bunch of stuff, but I’m not going to take it seriously until they put it out there.”
Roberson said that if Democrats actually wanted to get something done, something that could get a two-thirds majority in the marginally Democratic (11-10) Senate, they should have taken him up on his offer to meet and work something out more than a month ago.
“I’ve been willing to talk. It’s too late now,” he said.
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, agreed that Democrats are out of time to get a plan out the door to override a promised Sandoval veto. If such a plan reached Sandoval’s desk with fewer than 10 days to go in the 120-day session, he could simply wait until lawmakers adjourn to veto it. Then he could call them into a special session but without the option of raising taxes, leaving them no recourse until the 2015 session.
Lawmakers have the option of calling themselves into session, but that takes a two-thirds vote — pretty much impossible to get without prior agreement on a plan.
In contrast to the Democrats, Roberson, Kieckhefer and three other Republican senators are backing the amendment removing mining’s special protection from taxation from Nevada’s Constitution. They have proposed an alternative to the teachers’ margins tax on the ballot, and Roberson has introduced legislation to double the existing tax on mining proceeds.
“My plan’s out there,” he said.
Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey didn’t have much to say about Democrats’ tax plans or the state of the session.
“It’s Friday; I’m done. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” he said, quoting Clark Gable in the film “Gone with the Wind.”