Nevada Senate leader reflects on acrimonious 2003 session

RENO -- In a quest to assert their relevancy, 15 Assembly Republicans who blocked a record tax increase for nearly two months caused unnecessary acrimony, Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio said.

In the end, Raggio said, the Legislature succeeded in passing an $836 million tax package by a two-thirds majority without creating a state Internal Revenue Service or a business income tax or bankrupting programs to help the needy.

Before the session, Gov. Kenny Guinn said that those who ignored the need for new taxes would be "irrelevant."

But the coalition of 15 Assembly Republicans pressed their view, forcing two special sessions.

"They stuck together, they needed to show they were relevant and they truly believed they could control the process," Raggio said in an interview at his downtown Reno law office. "And to their credit, they did show they were a voice that had to be listened to.

"In the meantime, a lot of rancor occurred and a lot of acrimony was created that was probably not necessary. And it churned up a lot of public feeling that probably was not necessary," said Raggio, who is undecided about seeking re-election.

Guinn later said his remark about relevancy came in response to a hypothetical question, and he was not speaking about any specific legislators.

Assembly Minority Leader Lynn Hettrick, R-Gardnerville, said his caucus stand against any tax package that exceeded $704 million was not a reaction to the governor's statement.

"It wasn't a matter of trying to feel relevant," Hettrick said. "This wasn't about anyone's ego or anything else. These folks stood on principle. These people did what they believe in and it took a lot of heart to do that.

"We fought against the gross receipts tax, which was still on the table to the bitter end of that debate," he said. "It is a bad tax and would've been bad for the economic development and prosperity of this state. If you want to call that feeling like we were being relevant, we felt dang relevant trying to get rid of that tax."

The lasting effect of the bitter debate on the Republican Party, and whether Raggio's leadership position will survive the battle that pitted Republican against Republican are the unknowns left after the historic 2003 session.

Since he was elected in 1973, Raggio, 76, has been majority leader eight times and minority leader five times.

"I've always said it depends on your colleagues and what they want," he said. "If somebody thinks they can do a better job, they can step up."

A supporter of the proposed tax increase from the beginning of the session, Raggio worked to build a consensus through the regular and two special sessions -- both behind closed doors and in open session.

In addition to the 15 Assembly Republicans, Raggio also was unable to convince three Republican senators -- Ann O'Connell, Barbara Cegavske and Sandra Tiffany -- of the need for new taxes.

But the debate in the Senate never reached the epic standoff in the Assembly.

"He certainly is a force," said Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas. "He came out on top, so I wouldn't underestimate him. After 12 years of trying to depose him, I worked better with him in this session and it has been the most contentious of any that I've ever had."

Raggio downplayed the fracturing effect the session had on the Republican Party, calling it too early to tell what the long-term consequences will be. And he said the party was able to eventually overcome the rancor and pass a "fair and balanced" package of tax increases.

"We ended up with a budget that did not have a business income tax and did not create a state IRS," he said.

"I think I understand the needs of the state. I understand budgets and financing. And I can't sit back and not address the needs of retarded children, children that have serious problems, of families who are dealing with mental illness. Schools are in need and salaries need to be addressed."

But during the height of the budget impasse, a frustrated Raggio compared Republican anti-tax hard-liners to the John Birch Society, which hamstrung the party with divisiveness in the 1960s.

The political fallout of the session includes a recall effort against Guinn launched by a group of ultraconservative Republicans and members of other parties. Some members of the group believe a reform of the Republican party is needed.

"I respect Sen. Raggio," said Sandy Harmon, spokesman for the Committee to Recall Guinn. "But he was in the forefront leading the call for higher taxes. I think he's forgotten his conservative roots.

"We're people who have seen the writing on the wall and determined it is time to do something about it," Harmon said. "We're being taxed out of existence."

Raggio warned such efforts can destroy a party.

"I think I've earned my stripes in the Republican Party," Raggio said, listing his five decades of political accomplishments as a Republican.

"It is a lesson that not only the Republican Party but any party needs to learn: It isn't the other party that is going to beat you; it is the divisiveness in your own party. There is a segment of the party that has a very limited view of what the party ought to be."

Titus said the bad feelings will linger longer than most Republicans will admit.

"I think some things happened that people will have a hard time getting over," Titus said. "Publicly, they may put it behind them, but some of those things they'll never forget."


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