Political football as spectator sport

It's Monday night political football.

People mill about from huddle to huddle in the final hours of the 72nd session of the Nevada Legislature, waiting for somebody to call the plays.

They're all on the same team, even though they're on two distinct teams -- Republicans vs. Democrats -- and they're all on special squads that change from play to play.

Up in the bleachers, there are still plenty of good seats available. The Legislature is coming down to the final quarter, and nobody knows the score. Both the Senate and the Assembly needed two-thirds majorities to pass the biggest tax increase in Nevada history, and it's going to be close.

At either end of the half-circle Assembly chamber, there are scoreboards. In the middle is Abe Lincoln's portrait. Battle born. But all these battles are political, and it's tough to know who's won or lost until the game's over and taxpayers tally up the damage to their pocketbooks.

Everywhere are suits and cell phones. I'm in a polo shirt and jeans, because I'm just a fan who came down to the Legislative Building on the final night of the session.

Maybe I should be wearing a T-shirt that says "Go Legislature!" -- but they might get the wrong idea. I like it when they're in town. They get the joint jumping. Passing laws. Raising taxes. Saying smart things and dumb things, and it's up to you to decide the difference.

The lobbyists dress better than the lawmakers as a rule, but that's because the lobbyists are better paid. Much better. Need a bill killed? The going rate isn't quite as much as the girls at the Bunnyranch charge, but the result lasts longer.

The press is usually easy to spot. For one thing, they're dressed the worst. Like me. I would say I'm undercover, but I stand out like a sore thumb. If I wanted to to hide in plain sight, I'd be wearing a dark blue suit and striped tie.

At one point, a beach ball actually bounces on the Assembly floor for a minute. It isn't colored red and green and yellow, though. It's a political beach ball, the colors of the globe.

The secretary is reading bills faster than an auctioneer. Then the rules are suspended, kind of like the NBA when Shaq plays.

Up on the Assembly scoreboard, the votes are being counted as bills fly by. 41-1. 42-0. 36-6. Nobody applauds or cheers.

Then comes a bill to add a tax on rental cars so Washoe County can build a baseball stadium. The scoreboard flashes back and forth as a few legislators play coy with their buttons. Then the tally goes up: 41-0, with one person not voting. This time there are a couple of whoops and scattered applause from the cheap seats.

From one side of the Assembly floor comes a loud yawn. It's still not 10 p.m., a couple of hours to go.

The baseball stadium vote apparently signals some kind of breakthrough, because Reno Sen. Bill Raggio immediately calls the Senate Finance Committee into session and -- wham! bang! -- there's a tax bill coming out of the bullpen.

They've gone four months without a tax bill, and now here it is. A couple of members of the committee, Sandra Tiffany and Barbara Cegavske, complain. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but I am," Cegavske says.

I'm watching the committee on a TV in the press room. One of the taxes is on live entertainment. Does this qualify? No.

Now it's clear they're not going to finish by midnight, but the Nevada Supreme Court has allowed them another hour. While the rest of us would say midnight means midnight, we're not lawyers. Better legal minds than mine have determined that because of the switch from standard to daylight time, the legislators lost a valuable hour of their 120-day session.

Like it matters.

Outside, the bright lights are on TV reporters who are standing on little grassy knolls in front of the Legislative Building trying to make sense of it all for their viewers.

Across the street, a couple of kids are skateboarding in the parking lot. Isn't this a school night?

It's 12:45 a.m. and Raggio is starting to look a little like Leo Durocher, only with a pelt of hair. The Senate gallery is packed, because the Assembly can't do much until the Senate moves a budget and the taxes to pay for it.

Suddenly, as quickly as it appeared, the tax bill disappears. Raggio pulls it back and announces there just isn't enough time.

"It would be unfair, not only to the public but the senators here," he says. Everybody wonders if there just aren't enough votes.

Back in the press room, one of the watchers pulls up a chair. "This is kind of like that tie in the All-Star game," he says. "We ran out of pitchers."

The budget -- minus the taxes -- passes with only minutes to spare.

"I don't know whose clock we're going by, but it looks like we're out of time," says Raggio.

And it's over until the next day, when Gov. Kenny Guinn announces extra innings.


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