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April 17, 2014

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The Legislature:

Minority takes symbolic stands

Assembly Republicans use crisis session as protest platform

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Cathleen Allison / associated press

Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, flanked by Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, R-Henderson, speaks Monday on the Assembly floor during a special session called to address this fiscal year’s revenue shortfall of more than $340 million.

Click to enlarge photo

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, watches the proceedings Monday. During a mostly symbolic voice vote to confirm her as speaker, a number of Republicans abstained.

Everyone participating in Monday’s special session was saving his bullets for the real battle — the regular legislative session, less than two months away.

Everyone, that is, except Assembly Republicans.

Defying even the most optimistic projections, the Legislature took less than nine hours to close a $341 million hole in the state budget by cutting spending and borrowing and wresting money from local governments. And that included a half-hour lunch break for the Assembly.

Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert had been at the table last week with Republican Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, Gov. Jim Gibbons and Democratic leaders when the budget deal was hammered out. Yet after the more conservative members of her caucus rose up in a morning vote Monday, even Gansert joined them in voting against parts of the plan by day’s end.

Conservatives appear to have found their champions for the 2009 Legislature.

For those who believe tax increases should not be part of the budget debate during tough economic times, or ever, Carson City was looking like a lonely place. (In the Senate, only Republican Sen. Barbara Cegavske cast a vote against Monday’s plan.)

But a more strident right, even in the Assembly, where Republicans don’t have the votes, could at least give a bully pulpit to the idea that government has a spending problem.

Or, it could just be the Assembly Republicans’ slide further into irrelevancy.

Assembly Republicans have had to fight for relevancy. And after they lost another seat in November, handing Democrats a 28-14 edge — a veto-proof majority — it looked as if their reasons for showing up were dwindling.

But many Assembly Republicans say they will now be free to become a vocal opposition.

“It clearly indicates there are members who want a lot more fiscally conservative solutions,” Assemblyman James Settelmeyer, R-Gardnerville, said.

The votes against Monday’s budget deal were a blow to Gansert, and a shot at Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons.

Gibbons had made a personal plea to Assembly Republicans to get them on board. But it appears the father of the rule requiring a two-thirds majority of legislators to pass a tax increase could not move them.

Defying leaders

The conservative rebellion started early. During a voice vote to confirm Barbara Buckley as speaker of the Assembly, a number of Republicans said they abstained. Typically, the speaker is confirmed with unanimous ayes.

In a statement by the newly formed Assembly Conservative Caucus, seven mostly rural Republicans said they wanted to cast a secret ballot. Assemblyman Ty Cobb, R-Reno, said the caucus was formed because he wants a “vocal, aggressive party that clearly defines what Republicans stand for, and what Democrats stand for.”

Then in the afternoon, Assembly Republicans again stood to deride a plan to borrow $160 million from local governments.

Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said he supported the loan, but wanted to see more cuts to the state payroll, and perhaps furloughs for state workers.

“I think we need to do more,” he said. “We’ll do a terrible disservice to the state by not making more cuts.”

Settelmeyer, who also wanted to see more cuts, brought up the requirement that state and local governments pay prevailing wages on public projects.

Gansert made a last-minute plea for the votes, arguing that the loan was necessary to make it to February, when the regular session begins and there will be more time for larger policy discussions.

Only four of Gansert’s Republican colleagues voted for it. Nine voted against it.

Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, R-Reno, said, “We know we’re going to lose. We wanted to make a statement about where we’re going, what our principles are.”

After the vote, Buckley made her unhappiness clear.

“If you can’t bring votes, why have you at the table?” she said, referring to the budget negotiating sessions. “You can’t take stuff off the list or put things on the list.”

Caucus, Gansert included, unites

In the afternoon, the Assembly considered bills to take money from rental car companies and from businesses that collect sales tax, as well as money from mining that would otherwise go to rural counties.

This time, the conservative caucus united in voting against the bills.

“I’m disappointed with the votes I’m seeing this afternoon,” Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said. “There are many, many things that I wanted to take off that I’m deeply unhappy about.”

She looked at Gansert. “We’re in a crisis here, people. A crisis.”

Gansert explained her vote against a plan she helped negotiate by saying not all of the details were known until Monday.

The no votes from Assembly Republicans didn’t win them any Democratic friends, or increase the likelihood that their bills will even get a hearing during the 2009 session.

But it did raise the profile, at least for a day, of a group that has in recent years been largely irrelevant.

Conservative activist Chuck Muth said Assembly Republicans might still get rolled over in the 2009 session. But, he said, if they continue to take their vocal stands it could get the attention of like-minded voters, who in the end can provide the only sure route to relevance.

“It’s not what happens in the 2009 session; it’s the 2010 election they need to be thinking about,” Muth said.

David McGrath Schwartz can be reached at 775 687-4597 or at [email protected]

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