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November 28, 2014

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O’Connell targeted in election

The ghosts of legislative sessions past are haunting the Senate District 5 election, which is shaping up to be one of the most interesting of the primary election season.

A group is targeting Sen. Ann O'Connell, R-Las Vegas, for co-sponsoring a bill in the 2003 session that never made it to the Senate floor.

It was a $1.6 billion tax increase over a two-year period that would, opponents said, have been the largest tax increase in state history.

Now the Citizens for Fair Taxation, a group of business and gaming interests, has launched television, radio and print mail pieces attacking O'Connell as too expensive for Nevada.

"We just can't afford Ann O'Connell any longer," one mailer notes.

It's ironic because O'Connell has aligned herself with some of the most fiscally conservative members of the state Senate.

"An ad campaign that calls Ann O'Connell a tax-and-spender is just plain silly," said Joe Brezny, executive director of the Republican Senatorial Caucus. "For 20 years, her main issues have been lower taxes and less government, and to claim otherwise is just election year politics at its worst."

Her supporters say she backed the $1.6 billion bill, sponsored by Sens. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, and Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, to show that she would not support a gross-receipts tax, which many businesses said would cripple the Nevada economy.

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, which was against the gross-receipts tax, and several major developers continue to support O'Connell.

Citizens for Fair Taxation is "misconstruing one act and applying it to an entire legacy of an individual who fights for limited spending and efficient government," said the chamber's director of government affairs, Christina Dugan.

O'Connell did not return calls for comment.

The gaming industry was largely behind the gross-receipts tax, and the failure of the tax angered many of those who pushed for it.

Republican strategist Sig Rogich, who is supporting Heck but said he is not involved in the Citizens for Fair Taxation campaign, said that O'Connell has "kind of put herself in a quandary, trying to be a non-taxer and then supporting a tax measure that's twice the size" of the proposed gross-receipts tax.

O'Connell, for her part, has tried to portray her Republican primary opponent, physician Joe Heck, as a puppet for the gaming industry, which was angered by her tax votes in the last session and is largely supporting Heck.

One mail piece in the district depicts Heck as a dummy with "Special Interests" and "Hidden Agendas" holding the strings that control him. On the back, Heck's nose grows like Pinocchio as he attacks O'Connell's record.

"Those that back him want her gone, so they can be free to RAISE YOUR TAXES and REDUCE THEIRS," the ad reads.

Lesley Pittman, vice president of corporate and government relations for Station Casinos, said she was upset by the ad's implication that the gaming industry is supporting Heck so he will lower gaming taxes.

The industry, she said, was one of a few that acknowledged in the 2003 session that the state needed a tax increase to solve last year's budget crisis.

"There are a lot of decisions she made last session that we don't agree with," Pittman said. "We're very excited about Joe Heck as an individual. He has got great credentials, great energy."

The race is obviously heating up in this district, which includes much of Green Valley and downtown Henderson. O'Connell has launched a $100,000 television ad campaign touting her 20 years in the legislature, and the Citizens for Fair Taxation have countered with their own $100,000 campaign against O'Connell.

Mark Jolley, executive director of the group, declined to say which businesses are members of the group or how much they are spending on the ads, pointing out that campaign finance reports are due out on Aug. 31.

Heck, who said he has knocked on 20,000 doors, said voters tell him they are most concerned about what O'Connell did in the last session, not her longstanding record, partly because many voters are new to the district.

"What people look at is not necessarily what's been done over the past 10, 15 years, but 'what have you done for me lately?"' Heck said. "Especially now with the demographic of that district being basically brand new. The residents of District 5 don't care what she did 15 years ago."

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