Sunday, May 25, 2008 | 2 a.m.
What’s worse than knowing that the party is over? Waking up with a hangover when you didn’t even go to no stinkin’ party.
That’s how Nevada legislators feel these days. Their state wasn’t flush with money even when the Nevada was booming. Now, with the economy slowed and the state struggling to make budget, legislators have a morning-after headache that didn’t come from a fabulous night before.
The Senate’s veteran lion, Republican Majority Leader Bill Raggio, says the 2009 legislative session could be the toughest one in his memory. And he was first elected in 1972.
State government is in a bad way. There’s talk of government layoffs. The governor has cut 4.5 percent from the budget and delayed one-time projects, and now he wants schools, foster care programs, prisons — just about every agency that gets state money — to brace for another 14 percent cut when preparing budgets for 2010 and 2011.
Because gambling, consumer spending and the housing market are down, the state isn’t making the kind of money it needs. Raises that were promised for teachers and other government employees may need to be canceled. Legislators may need to gather this year to consider even more cuts.
If ever, this is a time for political leadership.
The Las Vegas Sun asked the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties in the Senate and the Assembly to sit down last week for a conversation about the state of the state, not just over the next year or two but beyond. The Sun also invited Gov. Jim Gibbons to participate. His office said there was a scheduling conflict.
The participants for this Sunday conversation:
Raggio, going into his 19th regular legislative session. He faces a primary challenge in his bid for a final term in the 21-member Senate. His challenger has attacked him as not conservative enough.
Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas. She has been mentioned as a 2010 gubernatorial candidate. Even as she was sitting down with us, she was quietly brokering a deal between three big casino companies and the teachers union to raise room taxes — instead of the gaming tax.
Assemblywoman Heidi Gansert, R-Reno. She will enter her first legislative session as the Republican leader of the 42-member body. With a sharp numbers disadvantage against Democrats, Assembly Republicans struggled to be relevant in the past session.
And Sen. Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas. He just took on the mantle of Senate minority leader that had been held by Sen. Dina Titus before she decided this month to run for Congress.
This was the first time these four, in their current leadership posts, have sat down together to address the future. Each brought to the table his or her own set of issues, delivered in carefully measured words.
For more than an hour, they talked about the state’s economic challenges. We’ve edited their remarks for space and clarity.
Raggio (Senate majority leader, Republican): We have no easy answers. Everyone who has a special interest would like to see more revenue. But in the situation where you have an economic downturn, raising taxes is not the easy answer or the proper answer.
We need to have a complete analysis of our budget situation and the needs of this state. We need a complete analysis of how we are using our present revenues, both local and state. Without this kind of analysis, you can’t get public support. And you can’t talk about these issues without meaningful public support.
Buckley (Assembly speaker, Democrat): We need to make sure opportunities continue to be available to all of our constituents, and you do that by offering services, including education.
Gansert (Assembly Republican leader): I think that’s a wise choice, to have someone from the outside take a look at government.
Raggio: It has to be completely objective, nonpartisan and not run by special interests. It needs to have the credibility that the public will accept and that the Legislature and the executive branch will accept.
Gansert: We also need to look at the role of government, because I think Nevada becomes unfriendly to business if we keep expanding the role of government.
Horsford (Senate Democratic leader): Government can’t and shouldn’t do everything. But there are important things we must do for the citizens of our state. Clearly education is among them, but I think health care and access to mental health services are areas where we need more emphasis. And I think we should review where we’re getting the best return.
We need to grow and diversify the state economy so we have good-paying jobs and so we can meet our funding projections in local and state government.
Buckley: Our biggest challenge is in the short term, and the fact that we are probably going to have about a $400 million shortfall each year of the upcoming biennium. I’m sure this is the first of many conversations we’re going to have over the next year over what to do.
Raggio: I support education with appropriate funding. But I’m not hearing anyone out there saying, “Raise taxes.” I’m not hearing that from your party, the Democrats. Obviously, I’m not hearing it from my party. So how do we cope in the interim?
I don’t know. You’ve got infrastructure needs, you’ve got education needs, mental health, all of the health and human services programs. We’re going to have to prioritize. I don’t see anybody suggesting tax initiatives or tax increases.
Gansert: It’s time that we look at the essential services. Maybe that is where the governor’s Spending and Government Efficiency Commission comes in. It looks like it’s going to try to find some solutions so we can do more with less. This isn’t the time we can ask for more from the people.
Buckley: With a downturn in the economy, and with what people are paying in gas and in food, they can’t sustain a tax increase.
Horsford: We have to decide where we want Nevada to be 10 or 20 years from now. Our constituents are saying they don’t want to be on the bottom of every bad list. They don’t want to be just better than Mississippi. They don’t even want to be mediocre.
They want to be the best that Nevada can possibly be, whether that’s in business or industry, whether that’s in our education system or if it’s in providing health care in a way that’s affordable for everyone. We need a blueprint on how that looks and how we get to that point.
Our reliance on addressing these issues in the short term has gotten us into a position where we are not as forward-looking as we need to be.
Buckley: We should consider creating a rainy day fund for education, so that when there are downturns in the economy, there’s an additional source to provide funding for education. One of the most troubling things throughout these cuts have been the 4.5 percent cut to education.
How do you protect future funding for education?
Gansert: It is going to be hard and education may be affected. Everybody may be affected.
Raggio: Would an education rainy day fund be something we could look at? Sure, but that costs money and we have to first replenish the existing rainy day fund. Then do we create a stabilization fund for human resources? Or other things?
All of these suggestions take money. It takes new revenue that’s not going to be there. And something like a gross receipts tax on businesses is out of the question. Back in 2003 that was a big issue. The Senate avoided it. We did not support it and I’m sure we would not support it now. You don’t tax business when businessmen are having a problem.
Buckley: The idea of an education rainy day fund was forward-looking. But you’re right, it does take money.
Raggio: We aren’t cutting the basic education program so far.
Horsford: Once we know how much money we’ll have to cut, we need to be able to responsibly explain the cuts to the public, whether the cuts will affect their child’s eduction or will affect public safety ...
Raggio: Parole and probation is a serious problem.
Horsford: Exactly. That’s the dilemma we’re in. This long-term plan will require money. And if our constituents say this is a top priority and this isn’t, those are the tough decisions we are going to have to make as legislators. We need a strategic plan and get input from our constituents on what they want us to fund.
Raggio: One problem is, we’re not seeing results, particularly in education. We’ve put standards in, but I don’t think they’re high enough, and we don’t have full accountability like we were told we would have. We have to improve if we’re going to get the public to support more for education.
Horsford: I think that standards are important. The more we can invest earlier in a child’s education to ensure they have the skills to meet those standards is important.
Raggio: And where would that investment come from?
Horsford: It’s looking at the whole of the budget and asking if there are areas we don’t need anymore.
Raggio: Having worked on the budget since I’ve been in the Senate, I’d be hard-pressed to find areas to take money from. I’m not prepared to say we should take money away from local governments, but I think that ought to be part of the study. Let’s see if tax revenues are being allocated properly. I’m not sure they are.
Buckley: I think that most local governments are facing budget cuts. This has been a simmering issue for decades — that counties get too much money, the cities get too much money. That’s something that has to be examined very gingerly. Look what they’re responsible for. Clark County is responsible for University Medical Center, for the uninsured, for social services, for child welfare services on the front end.
It’s easy to say some entities may not have it as tough as we do at the state level, but you also have to look at the services they are required to provide.
Raggio: I’m suggesting we do a complete and impartial analysis of all revenues from state and local governments, their sources, what our needs are, whether we are funding our needs appropriately, what we’d like to fund in addition to that, how we set up reserves, how we set up stabilization funds, and if that’s not sufficient, do we have public support for doing something further?
Horsford: I would just say from my perspective, and my caucus and the Senate Democrats, we would love to have as part of the discussion the expectations of the people we represent.
Raggio: Yes, it needs public support. Without that, you’re not going to get anything done. You’ll certainly never get legislative support or even executive support, I don’t think.
Buckley: What do you do first? In education, we would like increased support for career and technical education because we think if we don’t make high school more relevant, kids will drop out. And we’d obviously not like to be at the bottom for per-pupil funding.
In health and human services, we would like to increase the numbers of kids and senior citizens receiving help from assisted living, for nursing homes to keep up with the needs of the Baby Boomers who are going to be coming of age, help for people with Alzheimer’s, autism.
And we would like to be tougher on crime, but smarter on crime.
So in regard to that blueprint, I think we all have an idea for education. But we don’t for transportation, and we’re not keeping up.
Raggio: Nobody wants to raise the fuel tax. We only made a very small dent in the transportation problem last session. Your infrastructure needs in Southern Nevada are staggering.
Sen. Raggio has talked about conducting an analysis of state government revenue streams and needs. What if the analysis says the state needs more money?
Raggio: That would not be for the next session. Hopefully, after you get the analysis, you’d have input from the public, and you could get a measurement of public support. You can’t go out and raise taxes without public support.
If you have support from the public and the public would vote for it, I think you’d see a Legislature receptive to some of those proposals. But not without it.
Buckley: I think, too, that it depends on what comes out of the study and what taxes are recommended. When I talk to people out in the street, they are very clear about some taxes they do not think should be raised and some taxes that could be examined. Probably the most unpopular one right now would be a gas tax.
Raggio: The study will indicate where we are, the needs and whether or not we are dealing fairly and adequately with all of the needs of the state. Not now alone, but in the future.
Buckley: I certainly would support an analysis.
Horsford: It’s important we have this type of comprehensive review, not just of the revenue sources but the spending side and we have that ability to help us form our decisions. So we would be in support of that as well. We do need to take action whether in the short term or the long term to meet the needs of the citizens of this state.
Raggio: The next session is going to be a very difficult session. So I think anybody out there making a lot of promises to the constituencies, they’re going to be disappointed. I want us to work together as much as possible across party lines, across both houses.
Sun reporter Mary Manning transcribed the conversation.