Legislative session frustrating for area’s GOP lawmakers
For Republican lawmakers representing western Nevada, the 2009 Legislature was an exercise in frustration they say solved very little.
In the Assembly, Republicans were powerless to stop Democrats who held a two-thirds majority. In the Senate, Democrats needed at least two Republicans to reach two-thirds, but the two Senators representing rural western Nevada said they didn’t feel like they had much say in the deal making.
“There was a kind of rush to generate revenues for the sake of generating them,” said Sen. Mark Amodei of Carson City. “I don’t think there was a lot of leadership.”
For Amodei, the 2009 session was his last because of term limits. Sen. Mike McGinness of Fallon is halfway through his final term, so he’ll be there in 2011.
Both Republican Assembly members James Settelmeyer of Gardnerville and Tom Grady of Yerington can run for another term.
McGinness, who chaired the Taxation Committee six times, said he, like Amodei, isn’t adamantly opposed to any tax increases. Both have voted for increases in the past
But this time, both voted against the budget and the tax plan. They, along with their Assembly counterparts, complained that the final result was a Band-Aid and doesn’t address the long-term needs of the state.
“Instead we had some real good policy issues like (banning) novelty cigarette lighters,” McGinness said sarcastically.
“I voted against everything and voted to sustain every veto mainly because of the way it was put together: Sweeping every budget account, taking away from the counties. It was partly the amount, partly the method and partly the process.”
Amodei said he, too, voted against the budget and taxes because they did not take a critical look at existing spending. He pointed to class-size reduction as an example: “Are we getting $320 million worth from class-size reduction? If we are, let those chips fall where they may. But you couldn’t even talk about that.”
“And the saddest thing is, we’re poised to repeat the whole thing in 2011,” he said.
“My problem with this session is all we did once again is kick the can down the road,” said Settelmeyer. “We put off some decisions we could have started looking at this time.”
Grady agreed: “We used stimulus money, which is one shot money. We swept every account we could find any money in and we borrowed money that has to be paid back. Next session will have a huge hole.”
Settelmeyer said the Legislature should have evaluated programs added or increased in recent years to see if they’re needed and whether they’re working.
“Maybe we wouldn’t have to have state workers take a furlough day if we looked at some of those programs and said maybe this program isn’t necessary in these economic times,” he said.
Both Senators said one of their problems was that so many of the decisions were made behind closed doors by the so-called “core group.” They made clear that they weren’t much better informed than the general public.
“That’s a phenomenally curious way to conduct a legislative session,” said Amodei. “Were you being kept advised of what was going on in core? Until you got within 48 hours of going to the floor and voting, pretty much no.”
McGinness said they were generally told what was decided: “Then, at the end, it was go on the floor and vote.”
Both said leadership assumed the role of meeting and deciding what to do, then delivering their caucus’ support rather than including them in the decision-making process..
They said that in 2003, the last time lawmakers raised taxes, was far different. Amodei described it as a very public “absolute war” over every element of the tax plan.
“But when it came out at the end, it worked,” he said.
“If the economy hadn’t happened, it would still be working,” said McGinness.
Settelmeyer and Grady said Minority Leader Heidi Gansert did a good job of including her caucus and keeping members informed, but with the Democrats holding a two-thirds majority there, it was still extremely frustrating.
“Unfortunately, being informed and being able to do anything about it is a whole different matter,” said Settelmeyer.
Grady said he was willing to support some taxes if there were certain cuts.
“We never got the cuts we were looking for, so we didn’t support the taxes,” he said.
Both he and Settelmeyer voted against the tax plan.
In the Senate, Democrats needed at least two votes to override a veto by Gov. Jim Gibbons so the Republican minority had some power to affect the result.
He said another problem was the lack of communication with the Senate.
“I truthfully have no idea what went on in the Senate. The Senate didn’t communicate with us at all, Republicans or Democrats.”
One place where Amodei parted with the others is over the bill to give state workers collective bargaining rights for “non-economic” issues.
“After experiencing the way budget decisions were made, history’s been pretty consistent that those people not represented (state workers) got treated last or not at all,” he said.
He said teachers, on the other hand, do much better because they have bargaining rights.
McGinness said there is no such thing as non-economic issues in collective bargaining so opening that door is dangerous for the state.
Settelmeyer joined McGinness in one unusual observation: That the process seemed to work better when the two houses were controlled by different parties.
“It operates better with split houses,” said McGinness.
“I thought having one party control both houses it would actually have gone smoother,” said Settelmeyer. “It seemed the opposite of that.”
“Last session if it was a bad conservative idea, it died in the Assembly. If it was a bad liberal idea, it died in the Senate.”
Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell of Carson City, the lone Democrat representing the capital and rural western Nevada, said Friday she thinks the 2009 Legislature did a good job considering the recession and the bad budget Gov. Jim Gibbons gave them as a starting point.
“The money committees were given something they all knew they were going to have to rewrite,” she said. “It’s important for the public to know that Republicans and Democrats together created the new budget and almost every one of the minute decisions about what cuts to keep, not keep, almost all of those votes were unanimous.”
“This was truly a legislative budget.”
She said she can understand the frustration of those who felt they were outside the loop in making the tax and budget decisions.
“I think we were all fairly frustrated by the way things have to be done,” she said.
But Parnell said that’s nothing new: “Realistically this has always happened. You have leadership and key people on your money committees to work out those details.”
She said the Senate Republicans in particular managed to make some changes she supports, such as the sunsets on all the tax and revenue increases demanded by Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno.
“That gives people some comfort that we can reassess the situation in two years.”
Parnell disagreed that lawmakers should have focused not just on getting through this biennium but on long-term changes to the state’s tax and revenue system.
“If we had really tried to come up with long-term solutions at the same time as addressing immediate concerns, I don’t think we would have done either justice,” she said. “We did what we had to this biennium, then created the study for the interim.”
Referring to the revenue lawmakers took from the counties and cities, she said, “it’s too bad we had to affect them at all.”
“We shared in the pain, but I don’t think rural counties or Carson in particular took more of the brunt than anyone else.”
She said the interim study will give local governments the chance to make sure their concerns are addressed in any long-term solution.