Nevada Legislature convenes as budget battle looms

As the 2011 Legislature prepares to convene, even getting out of the starting block is a matter of contention.

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval says his two-year $5.8 billion general fund spending plan is only a 6 percent reduction from current funding levels. Democratic lawmakers put the gap closer to 30 percent when compared with the 2009 budget approved by lawmakers and spending requests submitted by agencies to meet caseload demands and higher costs.

It all depends on how you spin the numbers — and your vantage point before swinging the ax.

“It’s shaping up to be as ugly as predicted,” said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “The governor in his State of the State set some lines in the sand on funding of key programs that Democrats are going to have a hard time accepting, and even some Republicans will look at with some trepidation.”

The budget battles will be front and center when the opening gavel falls Monday, and the 120-day clock begins ticking. But spending scuffles won’t be the only dogfight in the coming four months, making meeting the state constitution’s deadline an iffy bet.

Law makers in the Assembly and Senate must also deal with the sticky business of reapportionment and consider more than 950 different pieces of legislation that have been tentatively proposed. Bill drafts deal with everything from a series of hot button immigration issues to an item designating an official day for Kiwanis.

“They should not be criticized for not making it in 120 days,” said Billy Vassiliadis, chief principal at R&R Partners, a statewide advertising, government affairs and public relations firm. Vassiliadis is also a lobbyist for the powerful Nevada Resort Association, representing the state’s largest casino companies.

Nevada, he said, is facing the “most difficult time in the state’s history,” punctuated by record joblessness, bankruptcies and foreclosures. Complicating the legislative task is a big class of freshman lawmakers — a third of the 63 legislators — caused by term limits.

Trying to solve the myriad problems by June 6, he said, is an “unfair expectation.”

After the pomp and ceremony of opening day, one of the first orders of business will be action on SB1 — a $15 million appropriation to fund the session. It’s one of 231 pre-filed bills already drafted and ready for introduction.

More than 950 bill drafts have so far been requested, some addressing recurring subjects: texting and talking on cell phones while driving; implementing a state lottery; DNA testing for criminals; motorcycle helmet laws.

Illegal immigrants or residents whose primary language is something other than English are targeted in several bill drafts — requiring employers to e-verify worker status; mandating English-only driver’s license exams; and making English Nevada’s official language.

There are proposed measures recognizing Kiwanis Day, Children’s Day; bills to authorize tickets for speeding drivers nabbed by remote photos; establishment of a statewide animal abuse registry. There’s a proposed “citizens traffic cone bill of rights,” and another bill that would require a hunting license — or $10 fee — to pick up antlers shed by animals.

Other bills would outlaw synthetic marijuana substances, and require common cold medicines that contain ingredients used to make methamphetamine available by prescription only.

The big battles, however, will be waged in the money, government affairs and revenue committees, and will be monitored closely by county governments, state employees, labor groups, industries and educators.

Sandoval’s budget proposal calls for consolidating some state agencies, shifting the cost of some services now performed by the state to local entities, and taking some property tax money for Clark and Washoe counties — the two largest — for higher education.

The Nevada System of Higher Education says the state’s colleges and universities would lose $162 million under Sandoval’s proposal, a scenario the governor has suggested could be made up by the Board of Regents by imposing higher fees and tuition on students. Chancellor Dan Klaich says the total hit, when the loss of federal stimulus money is factored in, amounts to nearly 30 percent.

Sandoval proposed cutting K-12 per-pupil funding by $270. Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, counters the cut equates to $477 when compared with funding levels approved by lawmakers two years ago.

Nevada earned a “D,” the lowest grade possible, in Education Week’s most recent school finance report, which looks at district funding, local property wealth and per student funding. The state’s overall grade was a “C-.”

Sandoval, who has said he won’t raise taxes or fees, makes no apology for wanting to shake up the status quo, and doesn’t equate funding with success.

“As governor, part of my job is to tell people things they don’t want to hear. And when it comes to education in our state, I want to level with the people of Nevada,” he said in his State of the State address. “Our education system is broken.”

His fix would include eliminating teacher tenure, social promotion, class size mandates and all-day kindergarten. Money from some of those programs would be lumped into block grants for use by school districts to use as they see fit.

Sandoval, who supports school vouchers, also has proposed a constitutional amendment to allow taxpayer funds to be diverted to religious schools and expand parental choice on where to educate their children.

Local governments, too, are concerned.

Jeff Fontaine, executive director of the Nevada Association of Counties, estimated the budget would shift about $70 million in programs from the state to counties, while eliminating $30 million more in programs and sweeping $40 million that pays for medical services for poor people.

Washoe County calculated the governor’s proposal would mean an additional $23.5 million hit to the county — on top of a projected $33.5 million shortfall.

“Counting revenues are declining as well,” Fontaine said. “They’re very concerned about how they’re going to pay for this.”

Tax-or-no-tax argument aside, Vassiliadis said businesses he’s talked with would welcome a discussion of Nevada’s overall revenue structure that is heavily dependent on, and vulnerable to, the whims of discretionary spending. About two-thirds of the state general fund comes from sales and casino taxes.

“I think that if all businesses cared about is low tax rates we would be beating businesses back at the border with a stick” he said.

It’s a discussion Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, doubts there will be time for.

“There’s always an opportunity to look at that, but I don’t think we have time to look at that this session,” he said. “Those who say overhaul the tax package, they’re just looking for a new batch of tax packages to impose and I don’t think this is the time,” he said.

State lawmakers will have to carve up legislative boundaries and create a new congressional district — a once-a-decade political exercise that coincides with updated U.S. Census data.

Republicans and Democrats have promised a fair process, void of political horse trading.

“Reapportionment, while it’s required every 10 years, is not the most important thing we’re going to do,” Horsford said. “Putting people back to work and growing our economy and improving education — redistricting is not more important than those two issues to me.”

via : The Examiner

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