Congressional session ends: What did Nevada gain?
December 23, 2014
LAS VEGAS — By the skin of their teeth, congressional lawmakers passed a $1 trillion budget through next summer, approved all military spending and passed a series of tax breaks.
Amid sometimes high-stakes drama, Congress got it all done in a flurry of last-minute legislating and back-room deals during the lame-duck session.
It was also Sen. Harry Reid's final few weeks as Senate majority leader. The Nevada Democrat will hand over power to Republicans when the new Congress takes over in January.
But Reid and the rest of the Nevada delegation made sure that plenty affecting Nevada made it into the final pieces of legislation of the 113th Congress. Here's what lawmakers agreed to that could affect you:
Extended tax breaks
When Nevadans file their federal income taxes in April, they'll still be able to deduct state and local sales tax they paid. A tax break package Congress passed retroactively extended this rule for tax year 2014, benefiting taxpayers in Nevada who can't deduct state income tax because they don't pay it.
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Nevadans who refinanced their homes or were underwater on their mortgages will also be able to deduct the difference on their debt for tax year 2014. Reid had wanted both these tax breaks to be permanent, but they'll have to be renewed next year, too.
Mostly rural counties in Nevada with lots of federal land will receive roughly $20-$25 million total to take the place of tax revenue they would stand to earn if they owned the land and could collect property taxes on it. These payments in lieu of taxes have become a key budget filler for many rural counties in Nevada.
Thousands of acres of federally owned land in Nevada will open up to commercial development in exchange for closing about 75,000 acres of land for wilderness protection.
Reid negotiated eight Nevada lands bills, some of which affect Las Vegas, into an unrelated, must-pass defense spending bill. It's the most significant lands package to pass Congress since 2009, but it was a controversial move that earned the scorn of budget hawks like retiring Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who called the defense bill, filled with unrelated federal lands bills, "the worst of Washington."
Gov. Brian Sandoval and Nevada's entire delegation celebrated the bill's passage as a win for the state: Nevada will have a national monument protecting ancient mammoth fossils in the North Las Vegas valley, the downtrodden city of Yerington will more easily be able to expand a copper mine and many more development projects in the state can get underway.
"This bill will open the door to economic development, job creation, mining, ranching and protect some of Nevada's treasured lands," Sandoval said in a statement.
YUCCA STOPPED AGAIN
Once again, the government will have no substantial funding to create a nuclear waste repository in Nevada's Yucca Mountain.
The House of Representatives passed a spending bill for the Department of Energy earlier this fall that contained about $200 million to restart the program about 90 miles north of Las Vegas. But Reid made sure the final spending bill Congress passed this week stripped the Yucca Mountain project of all new funding.
With just a small pot of money left from the $15 billion the government's spent so far on Yucca, it will stay untouched for at least another year.
SAGE GROUSE DELAYED
The spending bill also put the brakes on another impending government decision that will affect Nevada: whether to list the sage grouse as an endangered species. The Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court-mandated deadline to make that decision by September 2015, but language Rep. Mark Amodei, the Northern Nevada Republican, inserted into the spending bill prohibits the government from using money next year to make that decision. Listing the bird could put a dent in northern Nevada's economy by closing off land for recreation and grazing.
But the sage grouse is threatened in Nevada and nine other states by wildfires and commercial development. It's likely states and the Bureau of Land Management will still work on plans to preserve the sage grouse.
Conservationists and the Obama administration decried Amodei's delay on the decision.
"We don't like seeing politics trump science around Endangered Species Act issues," said Ken Rait, the director of the Western Lands Initiative with Pew Charitable Trusts. "And that's precisely what's happening with this."
Promoted international tourism
Lawmakers also renewed the Travel Promotion Act, a partnership between the federal government and the private sector to promote U.S. cities abroad.
Known as "Brand USA," Reid and Rep. Dina Titus, a Las Vegas Democrat, co-sponsored the measure and the original bill in 2010 because Titus said it's "yielded significant benefits to Southern Nevada and our nation's economy by fostering tourism."
Reid's staff said in 2013 it helped bring more than 1 million visitors to Las Vegas and create 53,000 jobs.