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November 24, 2014

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ANALYSIS:

Top Democrats’ wait-and-see on budget: Savvy or spineless?

Image

Sam Morris

State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, at the lectern, and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, right, announce at a Las Vegas news conference a timetable for their response to the state’s revenue crisis and Gov. Jim Gibbons’ budget, which proposes deep cuts in state services.

There are two ways to look at the performance of top Democrats in the run-up to the legislative session, during which elected officials will have to deal with an unprecedented fiscal crisis.

Politically astute and prudent, or overly cautious and maybe even a bit craven.

From one vantage point, they’ve made a sound, maybe masterful move in refusing to offer any specific plan of their own.

This continued Thursday, when Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, both Las Vegas Democrats, stood in front of solar panels at a union hall and held a news conference to unveil a ... calendar.

The Legislature, which convenes next week, will first determine what can be cut, what tax breaks and abatements can be eliminated, and what must be saved, they said.

Then, after they arrive at a target number March 30, they will present a revenue plan April 17.

The logic here is plain to see:

Gov. Jim Gibbons, the first-term Republican, released his budget blueprint two weeks ago, and it’s been roundly criticized ever since, especially his proposals to cut teacher salaries 6 percent and to slash money for higher education by 36 percent.

Gibbons was always boxed in, but he made the arguably courageous decision to propose cuts to higher ed, teachers’ salaries and other areas important to the middle class, as well as money for hospital shareholders, while dealing a softer blow to the poorest and most vulnerable.

But now the broad middle, the bulk of the Nevada electorate, is giving him a beating for his proposed budget, with even the staunchly anti-tax Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce attacking his cuts to the universities and teacher pay.

Gibbons was even getting it from his usually supportive right flank, attacking him for breaking his no-taxes pledge by supporting a hotel-room tax increase in his budget. He said he could support it because voters approved the tax in an advisory question on last year’s November ballot. When all was said and done: A Reno Gazette-Journal poll showed 69 percent expressing disapproval of Gibbons’ performance.

Buckley and Horsford have stood by and watched, except when they were holding hearings to drive home how untenable Gibbons’ cuts are.

Though Nevada’s electorate has changed significantly, evidenced by President Barack Obama’s crushing victory here, taxes are still a dirty word in a state with a long libertarian past.

So, even though everyone knows the tax proposal is coming, little can be gained in offering it up — or even talking about it — until you absolutely have to.

The approach prevents organized opposition from lining up.

“It’s a question of how do you finesse this into being,” and waiting is the smart play, said one veteran lobbyist.

A gentle approach makes it more likely Horsford can persuade the business lobby and two or more Senate Republicans to come along. He needs those two votes because the constitution requires two-thirds of the lawmakers in each chamber to approve a tax increase, and Democrats are now two votes short. (Democrats control two-thirds of the Assembly.)

This approach also buys Buckley and Horsford time: The federal stimulus bill, which will likely pass in the coming weeks, will probably rain some money on Nevada, especially for the state’s beleaguered Medicaid, the joint state-federal program that provides health care for the poor.

But here’s the other view — the Buckley-Horsford process looks cowardly and could backfire. Their approach is akin to saying Nevadans can’t handle this truth: Nothing in life is free, and the schools, the health care and the roads are only as good as the amount you are willing to pay (or can get tourists to pay.)

Rather than using this opportunity to rally the Obama-fied public to the idea that Nevada’s tax system is unfair and doesn’t raise enough revenue from those most able to pay for better schools and such, Buckley and Horsford are treating the inevitable tax increase like a shameful family secret. A veteran Democratic operative questioned this approach as out of step with a public ready to make hard choices.

That same Gazette-Journal poll had a plurality of Nevadans favoring a mix of tax increases and spending cuts.

At the news conference Thursday, Buckley and Horsford said it was imperative that the Legislature deliberate thoughtfully, and do so in a transparent process that will lead to both short-term stability but also a long-term path to shared prosperity for all Nevadans.

If that’s the intention, Nevadans may be asking: Why are they being so opaque?

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