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217 bills already drafted for first day of Legislature

Some bills would increase spending as the state faces large shortfalls

Updated Monday, Jan. 5, 2009 | 5:36 p.m.

CARSON CITY – While Gov. Jim Gibbons is preparing a lean budget for the next two fiscal years, legislators are drafting bills that call for tax increases and for programs that would require bigger spending.

There are 106 Assembly bills and 111 Senate bills prepared and ready for introduction on the opening day of the Legislature, Feb. 2.

The major tax bills come from the Nevada Supreme Court, the counties and the cities. The Assembly Committee on Government Affairs, at the request of the Nevada Association of Counties, has legislation to permit counties to increase the property tax by 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

Assembly Bill 67 would allow the county commissioners, by a two-thirds vote, to boost the tax to pay for public safety, health and welfare services.

Jeff Fontaine, executive director of the county association, said the local governments are feeling the same pinch as the state. And the counties, he said, are “mandated” to provide such services as indigent medical care and public safety.

“This would give the counties the latitude to carry out these mandated services,” says Fontaine, who notes this would be optional and some counties may not need the extra revenue.

There is a $3.64 cap on each $100 of assessed valuation. Some counties are at that cap, Fontaine said. And this 10 cents would be outside the $3.64 limit.

There are close to 1,000 requests for bills to be drawn for the upcoming Legislature. But the Legislature will be ready on opening day to officially introduce 217 bills and pass the initial one calling for $15 million to finance the beginning of the session.

If that bill passes, Clark County property owners feeling the same economic pinch could still be able to rest easily. County commissioners in two weeks are expected to reaffirm its “Taxpayer Bill of Rights.” One of the first provisions of that bill is to maintain property taxes at current or lower levels.

“The board would have to change its policy, and I do not see that happening,” said Susan Brager, vice chairwoman of the commission.

The Assembly Government Affairs Committee, on behalf of the Nevada League of Cities and Municipalities, is also sponsoring a bill to allow cities to increase any tax or fee if approved by voters. The cities would have the option to hold a special election to get the approval of the voters, under Assembly Bill 86.

The Nevada Supreme Court has enlisted the Assembly Judiciary Committee to introduce legislation to raise the cost of filing legal actions. For instance, it would boost the fee for filing many suits by $99.

Chief Justice Jim Hardesty said it would raise $16.5 million in Clark County alone in a year. The fees have not been examined since 1993 and are “significantly lower” than those charged in five other western states. The money initially would be used to finance 8-9 new district judges and their staffs in Clark County and one new judge in Washoe County. It would enable to meet the national standard time of disposing of cases.

In Clark County, it takes a civil case three and a half years to get to trial. This would shorten the time to two years, Hardesty said. And it would permit the business courts, created six years ago, to start issuing written decisions on complex cases. “They don’t have the resources to do that now,” the chief justice said.

Assembly Bill 65 would put the money collected into a special fund to pay for additional judges and staff, for more buildings and furniture. And there would be a $20 fee to provide for additional court security.

The biggest spending bill comes from Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, who wants to bring the support of the students in the public schools up to the national average.

That would mean the state has to pump $1.6 billion more into the school distributive school fund. The 2007 Legislature put the basic support per pupil at $5,323 and Schneider wants to raise that by $1,932 for each student.

“We never made an effort when times are good,” says Schneider in referring to his 10-year attempt to bring the public school spending up to the national level. “No one wants to make an effort when times are poor. When are we going to step up?”

Nevada ranks near the bottom in spending per pupil, he says. And more teachers and supplies are needed for the classroom. In Clark County, he says some classrooms have 45 students.

He complained his bill in five past sessions never got a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee. But he said it would be different this time with Democrats, his party, in charge and heading the committees.

He admitted the $1.6 billion was a lot to increase the budget in these tough economic times but he added the amount was “negotiable.”

The Economic Forum has estimated the general fund budget for the coming two years will be $5.7 billion without an increase in taxes.

Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, has requested three tax bills but they are not yet prepared. He says the three are being kept in reserve to see what the state will need. He won’t reveal what may be in the bills until he hears Gov. Gibbons’ “State of the State” address on Jan. 15 and the money committees receive the budget on Jan. 19.

“I can’t talk until I see what the governor proposes on the 15th,” said Coffin who adds he may not even come to Carson City for the address by Gibbons. Coffin, who is chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee, said he wants to see the actual budget before revealing what he will do with his three bills.

Cy Ryan may be reached at (775) 687 5032 or [email protected].

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