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April 19, 2014

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ANALYSIS: THE LEGISLATURE:

Final budget nearly struck

Why the Legislature will reach an agreement before time runs out

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KEVIN CLIFFORD/SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, takes a quick rest during a Senate floor session at the Legislature in Carson City on Wednesday, May 20, 2009.

This week in Carson City

Nevada Sen. Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, and Sen. Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, discuss the final amendments to SB429 before the body voted in the Senate Chambers at the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Friday, May 22. Launch slideshow »

The low point of this session’s spirited budget negotiations likely came in the wee hours Thursday, when Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, issued “a call of the house.”

Invoking the obscure procedural rule, the Senate majority leader directed the sergeant at arms to “take into custody” three absent Republican senators and return them to the legislative body where they would face “such action as the Senate may deem proper.”

The only thing missing from the surreal scene, which played out at 2:30 a.m., was a sergeant-at-arms staffer hopping onto a horse, grabbing a lasso and bellowing “To Fallon!” as he galloped off to wrangle an errant Republican Sen. Mike McGinness.

The drama came with roughly 36 hours remaining before lawmakers’ self-imposed deadline to pass a tax and spending package and deliver it to Gov. Jim Gibbons by 5 p.m. today, leaving enough time for the Legislature to override his expected veto.

Horsford eventually suspended the call, but the floor debate that followed was tense and the votes on important bills were split along party lines.

Veterans of the process took the public acrimony in stride Thursday, saying it wasn’t yet time to panic over lawmakers’ delay in reaching an agreement. The Nevada Legislature, they said, has always played a game of brinkmanship.

“Negotiations expand to fill the time allotted,” said veteran lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis, who has been involved in talks with legislative leadership this session. “The sort of culture has been bred that they can’t have a deal until a gun is put to their temple.”

After a short nap, lawmakers returned to negotiate. They emerged from a meeting Thursday evening to announce that they had reached a tentative agreement on what had been the primary sticking points in recent weeks — changes in public employee pensions, retiree health benefits and collective bargaining provisions.

Missing the deadline would likely lead to a court battle and result in Gibbons’ recommended budget being passed.

“The only one who’d win if talks blow up is Jim Gibbons,” said one veteran business lobbyist. “He’d be able to come back and say, ‘I told you so.’ ”

There is, of course, no guarantee that legislators won’t blow the deadline in the final minutes.

But Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, said Thursday that he thought the sides were close to a deal, with only two small issues standing in the way of an agreement on public employee benefit and bargaining changes.

“It sounds like everything is coming together,” said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas.

Democrats had agreed to dial back pensions and retiree health benefits for new public employees. Firefighter, police, teacher and other public employee unions — some of the party’s key constituencies — gave the legislators heat for bending during negotiations.

Meanwhile, Republicans said their votes on taxes — two are needed to pass a tax package and override a Gibbons veto — were contingent on those changes.

Lobbyist Greg Ferraro, who, with Vassiliadis, has been the major outside intermediary between the camps, said “whenever a compromise is struck and both sides are unhappy, it’s a sign of a good deal.

“They will try as hard as they possibly can to reach an accord.”

Missing the deadline would be a major blow to Buckley, Horsford and Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno.

“We have to get something done,” Horsford said. “Otherwise, no one wins.”

He and others said want a deal for policy reasons. Since Gibbons unveiled his budget, Republicans and Democrats alike have said some of its proposed cuts are unworkable.

They have spent months undoing many of the cuts in Gibbons’ budget, including a 36 percent cuts in higher education, caps on health care for the working poor and the closing of rural mental health clinics.

Legislators have agreed in principle to a spending plan and a $781 million tax plan to fund the budget for the next two years.

Failure to reach a deal would also be a blow politically for the legislative leaders.

Buckley is considering a run for governor in 2010. Failing to pass an alternative to Gibbons’ budget would leave opponents an opening to attack her leadership.

Horsford is in his first term as majority leader, a position he would certainly like to keep.

As for Raggio, he has a legacy to protect. He has spent decades in the state Senate advocating for and building a higher education system that would be gutted by Gibbons’ budget.

“None of these people wants to see what happens under Gibbons’ budget,” said one lobbyist, granted anonymity to speak frankly. “Everybody loses.”

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